Human Spaceflight Not A Strategic
Michael Griffin’s 20 October article “Why We (Still) Need to Retire the Shuttle” made his point well. Dr Griffin is a crackerjack engineer and excellent NASA administrator. Nonetheless, there were a couple of common assertions in the article which I believe are false.
First, the notion that government-run human spaceflight is an important strategic goal now. Human space flight is useless in the fight with al Qaeda, of very minimal value for energy independence, of minor economic importance, and has completely failed to reverse
‘s slide in world opinion. I do not see a major contribution by manned space flight to any currently important strategic goal.
Second, the notion that the space program is ‘stuck in low earth orbit.’
This is simply false. The unmanned program, of course, has an extremely robust presence beyond earth orbit.
The reality is that human spaceflight is a national prestige program, primarily conducted for bragging rights. That would be fine if it weren’t so expensive, but it is.
‘s human spaceflight program started with two brilliant successes, Apollo and Skylab. The following projects, shuttle and space station, are vastly over the original budgets and have not delivered anything even resembling their initial promises. Shuttle does not fly 50 times a year at $500 per pound to orbit or anything vaguely resembling these goals. The station cost at least 10 times the original $8 billion budget and
utilization has shrunk from the vast array of promised applications to narrow support of the Vision for Space Exploration, or VSE.
When an organization, in this case the human spaceflight program, has performed so poorly on two major projects in a row, one should not give them another. At a minimum NASA should get results from the flagship human project for the last 20 years, station, commensurate with the funds expended.
Once the ISS has delivered excellent science, published in the best journals and perhaps including a Nobel or two, and commercial enterprises generating tax revenue have been spun off, then the program should get a new project. Allowing this organization to sideline two decades of work with no application-level results and move on is a big mistake.
Michael Griffin did not make this mistake. He is tasked with implementing a vision created by President Bush and
‘s predecessor and, like so much in the Bush presidency, they got it wrong. We should not be spending hundreds of billions of dollars to put a very small number of people on big things far away entirely at taxpayer expense. The right vision could benefit almost everybody.
Applications should include environmental monitoring, planetary defense and space solar power. Supported commerce should include space tourism. The enabling technology requires what the shuttle was supposed to be: safe, reliable, inexpensive launch. This is the critical point, and this is where overwhelming force needs be applied.