Extending Shuttle a Setback for U.S. Space Program

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The final flight on the space shuttle manifest is scheduled for February 2011. Except it won’t really be the shuttle’s last flight: Congress is already putting in place funding for a follow-on flight later in 2011 to ensure that shuttle-related jobs, primarily in Florida and Texas, are retained for a while longer. In addition to retaining jobs, the additional shuttle launch will delay the onset of a hiatus in NASA’s ability to deliver astronauts to orbit.

That’s a good thing, right? It is, unless you want NASA investments to serve as an economic engine to spur growth in the high-tech economy. The space shuttle, the most complex machine in human history, is based on 40-year-old technology. The funding allocated to extend the shuttle program will mean that NASA investments in new technologies will be deferred. The development of a shuttle replacement will be delayed. Funding for future robotic missions to prove the capabilities needed to extend human presence into deep space will be eliminated.

The contrast between NASA’s programs of robotic and human exploration is instructive. Over the past 15 years, NASA’s robotic exploration program has developed a portfolio of science-driven missions that draw upon the most innovative concepts from NASA centers, private industry and academia. Through this robotic program, NASA has conducted a systematic pursuit of the history of water on Mars, leading to discoveries that have reshaped our scientific understanding of the red planet. We’ve visited comets, asteroids, planets and moons. Through competitive selection of mission concepts with focused science goals, NASA has injected creativity and targeted technology into the robotic program. Flagship missions are assigned to pursue major scientific breakthroughs that the smaller competed missions cannot be expected to achieve.

While the robotic program has been shaped around discovery-driven science, the human program largely has been influenced by job retention. Over the past four decades, the human exploration program has not ventured beyond low Earth orbit. The space shuttle program originally was designed in the 1970s to provide routine access to space, with launches every few weeks. The reality is that the shuttle program now costs $3 billion per year, with an average of only four missions per year since 2006. When construction on the international space station began in 1998, the estimated cost of completion for the U.S. was around $17 billion. Twelve years later, with the station nearing completion, the actual cost is about $60 billion. The promise of station-based research opening new vistas for advanced materials and pharmaceuticals has been replaced with a lesser vision of maintaining a human presence in orbit.

The approach of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to human spaceflight moves away from a monolithic, insular program to a more nimble strategy with critical flight systems developed for exploration of destinations outside the Earth-Moon system. An overarching program of technology development would spur advancement across human and robotic capabilities.

The underlying rationale behind this approach is that human spaceflight can serve as an economic engine to provide sustained growth in high-technology fields, benefiting the economy and our nation’s position as a technological leader.

The inclusion in the 2011 budget of an additional space shuttle launch and the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle based upon shuttle-derived components would chart the course for a continued slow decline in the human exploration program. Far from a robust space program with the hallmarks of creativity and competition, this approach is focused on job retention and designed to maintain the status quo. Without a competitive strategy in which strong investments in technology and innovation are made, our human exploration program will stagnate in low Earth orbit. Congress should look to the robotic exploration program as a road map for innovation, while expanding NASA’s technology development efforts as a means to advance not only the nation’s space program but the nation as a whole.

David Spencer is director of the Center for Space Systems at the Georgia Institute of Technology.