hen the
shuttle is retired around
, America’s ability to provide human access to space will come to a standstill as it faces a five-year gap in capabilities between the
shuttle retirement and the start of Ares 1 launch vehicle and the
Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle operational flights. Budget shortfalls have delayed the first operational flight of the Ares 1
/Orion transportation system to 2015, opening a half-decade gap in U.S. human access to space and exacerbating a very challenging transition from
shuttle to Ares.


With the NASA budget barely keeping up with inflation and insufficient to pull the scheduled operations of Ares 1
/Orion forward, the United States – the world’s leader in access to space – is left with an unacceptable gap in our nation’s ability to launch humans into space, while the Russians and Chinese move to take the lead. As the pre-eminent leader in human access to space for 50 years, how can we allow this gap in capability?


With the last planned shuttle flight just a short two years away, NASA and the U.S. space industry face the
tremendous challenge of
transitioning from the legacy
shuttle transportation system to the new Ares/Orion transportation system. This
transition will require us to leverage experience and retain work-force skills – while simultaneously training a new generation of space scientists, engineers
and processing work force. We are approaching a crossroad where the success of this transition will be critical to maintaining our world leadership in space, and steps need to be taken now to minimize the gap in capability. Indeed, the space access gap has grown substantially to a point where we now jeopardize our space leadership abilities and are being forced to rely on other nations’ capabilities.


There is a solution. NASA’s budget represents less than 0.7 percent
of the total federal budget, and adding a relatively modest $2 billion a year would provide significant resources to accelerate operational capabilities by nearly two years. Congress has tried to add funding in the last two years, only to see its efforts squashed in a budgeting system that results in
continuing resolutions
and flat budgets. Given that the U.S. capability to send humans into space and our ability to maintain the exploration initiative is at stake, $2 billion a year is indeed a modest increase to maintain such an important national capability. If necessary, a separate budget supplemental should be passed to avoid the budget entanglements of past years.


To its credit, NASA should be applauded for its innovation and creative decisions and actions that
already have resulted in several positive
soft landings,
where critical skills and experience are being directly applied to new program development. Technical, skill, processing
and cost challenges are being mitigated – to a degree – through the utilization of proven shuttle-derived capabilities that form the foundation of the Ares 1
launch vehicle.


Additionally, an Ares 1
test flight program is being developed between the end of
shuttle flights and the start of Ares 1
operational capability, utilizing the talents across the industry and NASA
field centers. These test flights provide an avenue of transition where critical skills and experience are captured and retained.


If the widening gap is not acceptable
– and it shouldn’t be
– there are only a few options that can be employed. Increasing NASA’s budget
to pull the Ares
1/Orion start of operations forward from 2015 to minimize the gap
is clearly the preferred option. Accelerating the next generation of launch vehicle and spacecraft that replaces the space shuttle is paramount in preserving the U.S. capabilities, technological supremacy and attendant skilled work force.

It also appears that with the retirement of the
shuttle in 2010, a gap in America’s human access to space will be dependent on Russian vehicles for a period of time. Although this is clearly an undesirable position, it is just as clear that we should
close the gap
with as much expediency as possible. NASA has identified the resources necessary to minimize the gap. In lieu of receiving adequate funding to speed up the development of the Ares 1
/Orion transportation system, which in turn supports America’s space work force, NASA will have no other choice than to pay Russia for access to space – which
ironically will fund Russia’s space work force.

Commercial options for human transport to low
Earth orbit have been touted as the way of the future. We all look forward to the day when this capability is a reality. However, the problem with this approach
is that the gap will exist between 2010 and 2015, and putting aside marketing rhetoric, any measure of historical analysis would indicate that these options, even if successfully demonstrated, will have no proven reliability and will not be available in time to close the gap.

There is no doubt that the transition from the 25-plus year space shuttle program to the new Ares 1
transportation system will be a significant challenge. We must minimize the gap in the U.S. capabilities and allow for an executable transition providing for the safety of our astronauts as the
shuttle program comes to a close. We
also must enable the execution of
soft landings
to preserve critical skills and capability during the transition.


It is imperative that the gap be minimized and the necessary resources be applied to ensure the health and stability of the U.S. human space program. If America continues down the currently prescribed path, there will be a day when the public will rightly ask “what were you thinking?”

Ronald D. Dittemore is president of ATK Launch Systems Group. ATK was awarded a NASA contract to design and build the first stage of the Ares 1 launch vehicle. The group also is building motors for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle launch abort system.