The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning, marking the safe completion of the final flight of the three decade program. There is no viable replacement for U.S. manned access to space (though there are several potentially promising commercial efforts underway), so U.S. astronauts and other crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will be solely reliant upon Russian Soyuz capsules for the foreseeable future.
For those that remember the status of American space efforts — military, intelligence and civilian — at the end of the Reagan era, it is hardly an unfair question to ask ‘what went wrong’? I had the opportunity to ask representatives of the space policy arm of each administration since Carter that very question a few months back and one resounding theme involved the shuttle itself.
A reusable, manned space launch vehicle was a promising objective, and there is no doubt that the shuttle program made a significant contribution to manned space flight. Many brave men and women served aboard the five operational orbiters. Fourteen died and two orbiters were lost. Raising issues with the shuttle program on the day of its retirement is not to tarnish valiant memories but it is essential to understand the full impact of the program.
Almost from the start, it seems, the shuttle program over-promised. It proved too expensive and complex to achieve the kinds of regeneration rates and economies of scale that had been used to justify the up-front investment in the first place. Yet it proved impossible to cancel — or even fund a replacement program while it continued to be funded. And at the end of the day, as one of the administration representatives pointed out, if you’re trying to commit now — today — to the way you’re going to be getting to low earth orbit in 30 years, you’re approaching the problem fundamentally wrong.
The shuttle is ultimately an example of how we cannot approach spaceflight moving forward. One, exquisite system cannot be allowed to consume so much of the available resources that an alternative cannot be devised, funded, developed and fielded at the same time as existing operations are funded. The expense of sustaining the ISS is noteworthy here.
All this matters to the U.S. military because a robust commercial space sector is part of the foundation of national security space. Right now, that commercial sector is attempting to rejuvenate itself after two decades of decline — decline for which it has itself to blame, decline for which the government bureaucracy is to blame and decline for which the requirements and acquisition process is to blame. For too long, the shuttle program has been a drain on the national space endeavor, has entailed too great an opportunity cost and has acted as a weight on forward progress.
So as we mark the end of the shuttle era, the question is not just how we get ourselves back into space. If we should, we need to make that case to the American people and allocate money despite the period of fiscal austerity. And then we need to get there in a more agile and flexible way and plot a course that is fundamentally different from the shuttle, ISS and now-defunct Constellation programs.