I am not a government employee, the CEO of an aerospace company or even senior management. I am an engineer, one of the tens of thousands of people around this nation who work daily on our efforts in space.
In six months, the United States will retire the space shuttle, the most robust and capable space vehicle the world has ever seen, simply because our government has decided to do that. We have no vehicle to replace the space shuttle, and we will have no replacement for an unspecified amount of time.
This is an enormous strategic mistake that requires serious reconsideration from all levels of government. Anything less will result in the U.S. surrendering its leadership role in human spaceflight for the foreseeable future. Unique, valuable skills, experience and knowledge will be lost as the work force has no other choice but to disperse.
Ironically, the international space station, our $100 billion investment a quarter of a century in the making, is just nearing completion, and President Barack Obama is proposing to extend its mission until at least 2020. With the impending cancellation of the space shuttle program, there is little foresight and even less of a concrete plan on how we can fully utilize the space station to ensure it becomes everything that it can be and was promised to be. The fact is the space station was designed and always intended to be supported by the space shuttle in addition to unmanned cargo vehicles supplied by Russia, Europe and Japan. These cargo vehicles cannot completely replace the unique capabilities of the space shuttle and were always intended to act as a supplement.
With the shuttle gone, the United States will be reliant on a foreign power, Russia, and its Soyuz spacecraft for an unspecified amount of time to transport astronauts to the space station, so heavily funded by the American people. For this service, Russia will be charging the United States approximately $50 million per seat. Per the space station agreement with our international partners, the United States transports European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts to the station on the space shuttle, since they have no crew capability of their own. Of course retirement of the shuttle does not nullify that agreement, and the American taxpayer will now also be paying Russia for the transport of our European, Japanese and Canadian partners as well.
Compounding this problem is the fact Russia has signaled the price per seat will likely continue to increase as time goes forward. The United States will have no choice but to pay whatever Russia decides to charge, because, after all, we will have given Russia a monopoly and with that surrendered a part of our national sovereignty.
There has been much discussion and debate about commercial providers’ taking over the role that the space shuttle was always intended to perform. This is a worthy goal that I support for many reasons, but these vehicles do not exist and are not operational today. However, if the United States allows the international space station to degrade or not realize its full potential, the business case for these commercial providers degrades as well. An extension of the space shuttle program prevents this. Once commercial providers are operational and have verified their performance, that would be — and should be — the trigger for space shuttle retirement.
If we turn our back on spaceflight without any near- or long-term plan and outsource our immediate needs to other nations, it will be a sad day for the United States — perhaps an indicator that this great nation truly is in decline. I understand the economic climate in which we live today. However, we must look at this as an investment, one that costs this nation approximately one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget for all of NASA yet returns so much to the economy as a whole. The space shuttle program is a fraction of that amount and can be made even more economically efficient while still protecting the safety of our astronauts. In a time when there is so much uncertainty about jobs and the role of the United States in the world, this is a small price to maintain American leadership at the space station and in spaceflight.
Mike Snyder is an aerospace engineer on the space shuttle program in Houston.