“[O]peration of the Space Shuttle, and all human spaceflight, is a developmental activity with high inherent risks … The Space Shuttle is not now, nor has it ever been, an operational vehicle. We cannot explore space on a fixed-cost basis.”

With these words, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board set off a spiraling chain of events that has since touched every aspect of NASA and the United States human space exploration enterprise, for good or ill, directly and indirectly.

Since the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003, and after adjustment of NASA’s safety culture, NASA, its advisers, and advocates have run through a litany of agency mission, exploration vision, and transportation vehicle goals and options. At times it sometimes seemed a pursuit designed to reassure the fully committed that there was a mission to be found “out there” rather than to address the many concerns the nation has about its future in space.

Now, we have come full circle. When President George W. Bush announced his vision for space exploration in 2004, it was alarming to see the rush to modify and abandon many of NASA’s statutory goals, discount fiscal realities the Columbia board correctly viewed as long-standing obstacles to American spaceflight’s future, and respond to the board’s call for greater caution, humility, and forethought in space exploration with formulations deemed to leap effortlessly beyond the risks.

Unfortunately, many in the U.S. space community ignored the latter aspect of the board’s report, though reading a call for undue cautiousness in spaceflight into the report was an error. The board did not call for an end to exploration and innovation, an outcome that some considered real and many feared, but merely for greater recognition and acknowledgement by U.S. political leaders and policy managers of the responsibility that goes with the decision to be a great spacefaring nation.

“NASA’s (shuttle-era) culture of bureaucratic accountability emphasized chain of command, procedure, following the rules, and going by the book. Allegiance to hierarchy and procedure had replaced (Apollo-era) deference to NASA engineer’s technical expertise,” the board wrote in its final report.

Hardly a call for lack of risk-taking and innovation; rather, a formula for achieving future safety in American spaceflight operations that harkened back to the earlier, almost forgotten culture of novelty and adventure that imbued early human spaceflight.

The FY 2012 budget, combined with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s Feb. 23 remarks to CNN about the history and circumstances of U.S. human space transportation, reflect both the best and the worst aspects of the unsteady alliance that exists between NASA and its political sponsors.

“What is not acceptable is the fact that the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America, finds itself in a situation that we didn’t do the proper planning to have a vehicle in place to replace shuttle when it lands its last landing,” Bolden told CNN on the eve of Space Shuttle Discovery’s last scheduled mission.

NASA, once again, is challenged to fulfill a broad suite of national objectives in astronomy, deep space exploration, Earth science, aeronautics, space technology, space transportation, and human space operations.

Rather than continuing to craft visions and solutions that secure human visitation to a far-off place in an immediate future, NASA seems to have capitulated to the dual, competing agendas of commercial human space transportation and rapid prototype development of heavy-lift cargo transportation that will be needed to knit U.S. space transportation, exploration, and mission goals back together in some distant future.

In the meantime, NASA has recommitted itself to its current human spaceflight program (via the international space station) while finally being able to leave its space transportation history behind, now that the space station is complete. In many ways, this is a mature step forward, and one for which the NASA administrator should be applauded.

But it is not a satisfying result for the politicians, adventurists, cosmologists, and space industrialists who hover around and in NASA.

As in 2003, the circumstances we face today — the lack of a clear vision of the role and purpose of space flight in America’s future — have not changed. The 2010 National Space Policy went far toward resolving key shortfalls in America’s space program, including ambiguities about the importance of U.S. industrial trade and how international space cooperation will contribute to greater national and global security. But the specific circumstances of what NASA’s role is to be in leading innovation, space technology, and science in the United States and abroad remains obscurely written and is unlikely to be fulfilling.

Leadership at NASA has always required a mix of breeds: part futuristic visionary, part technocrat and engineering wizard, and many parts managerial pragmatist and national politician. When NASA strays from that combination, difficulties soon follow. One hopes that, as in 2003, calm heads will allow NASA and U.S. political leaders to better formulate and put forward a path that reconnects the many splintered ambitions of American civil spaceflight.


John Cullen served as the Democratic staff lead for the Columbia accident investigation on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee from 2003 to 2005.