Long before the Vision for Space Exploration was announced, The Planetary Society had been calling for a redirection of human spaceflight policy. Limited to low Earth orbit for more than 30 years, with no destination and no goal, human spaceflight was serving no purpose worth its cost and risk. Yet there is a purpose worth that cost and risk — exploration of other worlds. This is why, even before it became public and ever since, The Planetary Society has supported the policy of the space vision — sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars. We see this not as just an American goal, but also a goal of Earth — extending the human presence into the solar system.
The vision is now in danger of being blinded. The U.S. Senate has inserted a seemingly innocuous clause into NASA’s authorization for 2006 saying that the shuttle may not be retired until the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) is flying. This, we believe, will kill the vision. We are urging Congress to oppose the authorization language.
Why not extend shuttle usage if the CEV is not ready?
(1) It would cost a fortune — the shuttle is the most expensive vehicle in (or out) of the world;
(2) It would also add costs to the already high expense because, as stated by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, flying the shuttle safely after 2010 will require a whole new certification including many replacement of parts;
(3) It would prevent the new launch vehicle developments required for human exploration beyond Earth orbit — first by eating up the money that could pay for the new developments, and second by removing the incentive to get them developed quickly;
(4)It will continue the self-serving definition of lesser value human flight missions in low Earth orbit that could be done more efficiently by robotic spacecraft; and,
(5)It isn’t necessary. The United States has shown several times in history, most recently the past two and a half years, that we can work with a gap in U.S. human launch capability — international cooperation ensures access to space, and the space station is truly an international project.
Shuttle retirement by 2010 is the single most important near-term step to move forward with human exploration beyond Earth orbit. NASA knows this — they support the shuttle retirement plan and oppose the added congressional restriction. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin knows this — he led (with former Astronaut Owen Garriott) The Planetary Society study that called for exactly this policy before he became administrator.
We support human spaceflight — not for the things that robots can do, but for the vision for a future for humans beyond our planet. This is why we have written the letter to Congress below, urging removal of the Senate language, and why we will ask our members to oppose any NASA bill weakening the plan to retire the shuttle.
Our letter to Congress follows:
The Planetary Society’s nearly 100,000 members strongly support the NASA Vision. Since its announcement last year, this much-needed NASA vision has received strong bi-partisan and bi-cameral support from Congress. Indeed, the exploration initiative was in large part a response to congressional and other public calls for Administration leadership in the space arena after the Columbia Space Shuttle accident. We are writing you now to alert you to a potential threat to the future of space exploration: extending the life of the space shuttle.
The Senate Commerce Committee introduced their Authorization bill S-1281 on June 21. While this bill proposes important guidance for NASA in many areas, such as a section authorizing NASA Prizes, it contains the following language (Title III, Section 302 (a)): “In order to ensure continuous human access to space, the Administrator may not retire the Space Shuttle orbiter until a replacement human-rated spacecraft system has demonstrated that it can take humans into Earth orbit and return them safely, except as may be provided by law enacted after the date of enactment of this act.” We oppose this language.
Extending the life of the shuttle would put such a strain on NASA’s budget that the United States would not be able to pursue the vision for space exploration. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board made it clear that the re-certification of Space Shuttle safety would be necessary if the orbiters continued to fly beyond 2010. A re-certification of the Space Shuttles is likely to cost several billion dollars, without truly increasing the reliability of this 30-plus year old system.
An established retirement date for the shuttles, set in advance, will permit for a natural transition of the workforce to the new human-rated spacecraft systems (CEV and CELV), as well as possibly a heavy-lift launch vehicle for carrying cargo to the Moon and Mars. We do not see the detrimental effects of a gap in human access to space by the U.S. as a reason to derail our future space exploration efforts. During the period following both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, 2 1/2 year gaps in U.S. human space flight occurred without tremendous detrimental effects. After the Columbia accident, our Russian space-station partners have filled the U.S. human space flight gap. To serve as a back-up, transporting our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, was one of the primary purposes of involving the Russians in the International Space Station. We can and should plan to utilize our international partners in just such a way in the future.
The NASA Administrator has already begun to accelerate the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and the Crew Exploration Launch Vehicle (CELV) in anticipation of the Shuttle’s retirement by 2010.The Planetary Society urges Congressional Conferees remove the “no gap” language in the final NASA Authorization Bill for 2005. NASA’s new team is busy working to implement the exploration vision and needs all of our continued support.
Dr. Wesley T. Huntress, Jr.
President, The Planetary Society