Letters to the Editor:

Stop Knocking Shuttle

I am sick and tired of the chorus of braying and bleating criticism of the space shuttle program. The latest comment from [NASA Administrator] Michael Griffin, who described it as an “inherently flawed system” in his Senate subcommittee testimony [“Griffin Tells Senate that Shuttle Must Be Replaced,” May 16, page 4] is as absurd as it is unfair.

He should know better. The report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board made it clear that it was some of the people who operated the space shuttle who were inherently flawed, and they were working for an inherently flawed organization: NASA. If you own an SUV and do not repair obviously worn brakes and then get into a car crash because they did not stop it in time, it’s not the SUV’s fault, is it?

I doubt that all those astronauts who went on well over 100 successful shuttle missions would have flown if they thought the shuttle was “inherently flawed.” How do they feel after reading Griffin’s comments, I wonder?

The shuttle is a magnificent space vehicle system that has served this country and the world admirably for two decades.

What is NASA after, perfection? Do they think they can develop a flawless shuttle successor?

Good luck.

David Nixon, Los Angeles

Griffin on the Mark

The reprinted Michael Griffin editorial on shuttle-derived vehicles [“Affordable Heavy Lift,” Commentary, May 23, page 19] is incredibly on target.

Shuttle derived vehicles would present minimal operational or ground system changes, enabling mixed operations with shuttle orbiters and a smoother transition during orbiter phase-out.

NASA was well along in developing a Shuttle-C cargo vehicle until the early 1990s. Real development work already has been performed within the agency. Presumably, there is a place from which to pick up and continue.

It is refreshing to see that someone who is now a NASA administrator take a public stand for this kind of innovation. Now, about those External Tanks that NASA keeps throwing away…

Greg Zsidisin, New York, NY

Earth Science and NOAA

I must disagree with your editorial regarding NASA’s funding of Earth Science “Offloading Earth Science,” [May 16, page 18] and with the remarks of House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said during recent hearings concerning this issue.

I consider myself to be an environmentalist, but I think that it is time for NASA to get out of the business of monitoring the Ea r th. This doesn’t mean that the use of space for such purposes should end. It merely means that NASA has performed its traditional role of pioneering this field of space- based Earth monitoring. It has succeeded in this role and it is now time for others to support the operational versions of these technologies.

NASA has pioneered other technologies in its history, namely weather and communications satellites. In both instances, NASA eventually handed these off to other entities, to another agency in the first case and to private industry in the second instance. Can anyone imagine NASA continuing in these endeavors today?

As for Earth observations, there are three existing agencies in the U.S. federal government that are in the “business” of the environment, i.e., the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey. Do we need NASA to be a fourth environmental agency?

NASA should continue in its role of pioneering new technologies for Earth observation, and its budget blueprint provides the funds to do just that. I believe that the ground-breaking work of satellites such as Terra, Aqua, Aura and Landsat should continue, but let’s put the proper agencies in charge. If Congress shares my belief, then I hope that they would add sufficient funds to those agencies to continue that work.

Operational versions of Earth- observing satellites do not belong in NASA’s budget, just as $400 million in congressional earmarks do not belong in NASA’s budget.

As was suggested by Space News in your May 16, 2005 editorial, perhaps NOAA is the proper agency to assume the role of providing data about the Earth from satellites. It is not NASA’s fault if Congress has not provided the wherewithal for NOAA to assume this role. NASA is the sole agency charged with the exploration of space, of other worlds. It must not be burdened with roles that properly belong to others in the government.

I care for the Earth just as much as Rep. Boehlert. I would like to see him lead the charge in Congress to obtain increased funding for NOAA to allow it to run the operational versions of the Earth Science satellites. As for NASA, it is not a wildlife agency or a housing agency or a drug approval agency. It is the nation’s space exploration agency. I hope that the Congress fully supports it in that mission.

Philip Horzempa, Syracuse, New York

A Prize for Earth-to-LEO Space Transportation

A May 9 article reported that t/Space is offering to build an Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) crew transfer vehicle for $400 million that will operate at $20 million per flight. If t/Space can really deliver at those price points it would be a deal and a half.

However, there is a long history of space cost overruns in both the government and private sector. Furthermore, while some members of the t/Space team have fantastic records developing successful aerospace systems, other members have done very poorly. Thus, it is not clear that NASA should write t/Space a $400 million check. Taxpayers could easily end out with nothing to show for it.

However, it would be of great value if the private sector could be harnessed for Earth-LEO transportation. The X Prize was very successful, perhaps a larger prize consistent with the greater difficulty of orbital flight is in order. Needless to say, I have a proposal. Offer a series of prizes for putting people in orbit and returning them safely, according the following schedule:

— $50 million per person for the first 10 people in orbit

— $40 million per person for the next 10 people in orbit

— $30 million per person for the next 10 people in orbit

— $20 million per person for the next 10 people in orbit

— $10 million per person for the next 10 people in orbit

— $5 million per person for the next 20 people in orbit

— $1 million per person for the next 50 people in orbit

— $100 thousand per person for the next 100 people in orbit

— $50 thousand per person for the next 1,000 people in orbit

— $10 thousand per person for the next 10,000 people in orbit

If prizes awarded to a single organization are limited to 70 percent (to ensure that at least two companies can access these funds) and if t/Space can deliver the price points, they can make a 100 percent return on investment in about nine flights, assuming four people per flight.

That should be sufficient incentive for investors. The total taxpayer cost of the program is about $2 billion, including 5 percent administrative overhead. This is less than half the cost of one year’s shuttle operations. Furthermore, the taxpayer doesn’t pay a dime without getting results.

This program could be funded by $200 million per year, for 10 years, placed in an appropriate escrow account.

While not an insignificant sum, it is small by human space flight standards — taxpayer risk is near zero — and the result could well be low-cost human access to space.

Al Globus, Capitola, Calif.