NASA traces its beginnings to the formation of the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915, and for its first 40 years every project was intended to be of practical value. Its goals flowed in from industry and up from the engineers, not down from the top. After Sputnik, everything changed.
The Moon race was not a scientific quest; it was a substitute for a perilous nuclear arms race that could have destroyed the world. The Apollo program achieved its goal, but it was canceled for a very good reason: Human spaceflight with throw-away rockets was, and is, much too expensive to have any practical value.
Yet there is no reason space travel has to be so costly. All the fuel that puts the space shuttle in orbit costs only about $850,000. The shuttle is expensive not because it has wings, but because it was built without any prototypes that could test its design in actual spaceflight. Consequently, there was no way to accurately predict cost or reliability, and design decisions were made that ultimately proved costly in many ways. But abandoning reusable spacecraft now, after only one attempt, is as absurd as flying only the Wright brothers’ very first airplane from 1903 until 1930 and then concluding that heavier-than-air flight is impractical and going back to balloons.
Just 10 years ago, NASA was well aware of this, and was developing a new series of unmanned “X-planes” that would flight-test new technologies and thus enable a future generation of fully reusable spacecraft to be both practical and safe. But all were canceled, not because of technical failure but from lack of interest. Only the X-37 remains, salvaged by the Defense Department, not as a landing craft for space commandos but for the very practical mission of developing new technologies to reduce the cost of launching and retrieving satellites. It will test new systems for thermal protection, aerodynamics, guidance, autonomous runway landing and low-maintenance reusability. Ultimately, a vehicle much like it will be paired with a winged liquid-fueled booster, also unmanned, that will return directly to a launch site runway. It may well demonstrate for the first time a spacecraft that can land, refuel and relaunch. It is the future, and it is unfortunate that NASA has abandoned any role in it.
It is just as tragic that America is abandoning the shuttle at the very moment that its operations have become almost routine, and that the only work force in the world that has decades of hands-on experience maintaining reusable spacecraft — the thousands of technicians and engineers with the very knowledge that could make the next-generation space shuttle safer, less expensive and more productive — is about to be dispersed forever.
A new space spectacular, regardless of its destination, will be no more sustainable than Apollo. If it is to be supported by our taxes, NASA must produce practical benefits for America. It is time for the agency to return to its original mission — not the mission that was forgotten when the Moon race ended, but rather the mission that was forgotten when the Moon race began.
Merritt Island , Fla.