Executives at Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the Edina, Minn.-based prime contractor for the Ares 1 main stage, told Space News Nov. 25 they were not alarmed by the questions the transition team is asking about Ares and the Constellation program, which encompasses not only the shuttle replacement but also hardware NASA would need to land astronauts on the Moon. “They are doing due diligence,” said Charlie Precourt, ATK’s vice president of NASA space launch systems. “If you are the incoming steward of all federal agencies you are going to ask a spectrum of questions like this.”
Precourt said he was confident the transition team ultimately would reach the same conclusion as NASA, namely that Ares offers the best combination of cost, safety, reliability and performance, and that staying the course is the best way to minimize the gap between the shuttle and its replacement.
Of course he is. What else is he going to say?
But here’s what really drives me crazy about the reporting here. The headline on Berger’s story pretty accurately describes it, but when it was republished by Fox News, their copy editor picked up on the last phrase in that graf to rewrite it as “Obama May Cancel Shuttle Replacement.”
This kind of thinking is extremely misleading, and confuses, rather than enlightens policy discussion. It implies that we are going to continue along the path that we’ve followed for the past half century, and that NASA will develop and operate its own monolithic launch system for its own purposes, largely disconnected from the needs and aspirations of the rest of the space community and the public.
Beyond that, what does it even mean to “replace” the Shuttle, particularly with Ares 1/Orion? What is it that is being replaced, functionally?
The ability to deliver twenty tons to ISS? No.
The ability to return thousands of pounds from orbit? No.
The ability to launch seven (or more) crew to LEO, and perform research there for up to two weeks, and return the results? No.
The ability to provide a lifeboat for the ISS? Definitely no, since Shuttle doesn’t even have that capability (something that people urging the program extension seem to continually forget). Even if we continue the Shuttle program (with all the cost and risk) until that halcyon day that we have the “replacement,” we will continue to be reliant on the Russians for Soyuz, at least until something else can replace it, such as the SpaceX Dragon.
We have to break out of the mindset of referencing space policy to the “Shuttle.” A little over six years ago, when I was writing for Fox News myself, I wrote a piece on this theme, titled “A Shuttle By Any Other Name.” As I wrote then:
The original idea of SLI, started in the wake of the disastrous X-33 program, was that NASA would take the lead in developing technology for “next-generation” launch systems. This was code word for new reusable space transportation systems.
More importantly, hijacked by various factions at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, it was really a plan to build a replacement for the current space shuttle, to be developed and operated by NASA, and thus preserve the current empires and fiefdoms that make the present space shuttle so costly and inefficient, and ensuring a continued costly monopoly of manned space by the agency for decades to come.
This agenda is revealed by the wording in popular accounts of the program’s purpose, in which the definite article is generally used to describe the desired outcome.
“The next-generation vehicle.”
“The ‘shuttle II’”
“The shuttle replacement.”
Note the implicit assumption — there will be a replacement for the current shuttle and it will be a replacement, not replacements (plural).
In the space community, the question is often asked, “What will the next shuttle look like?” Popular articles about space similarly speculate on the nature of the “next shuttle.” The question is often asked “can we get a shuttle to the moon?” (The answer is no).
Clearly, “shuttle” has become synonymous in the minds of many in the public with space vehicle.
In his great work, The Analects, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucious wrote that if he was ever asked for wisdom by the government, the first thing he would tell them was that, before he could provide such advice, a rectification of names would be required.
“If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.”
It would be well for the government in general, and NASA in particular, to heed this admonition.
As a humble beginning to such a rectification of names, I hereby propose that we purge the word “shuttle” from our national space vocabulary. As applied to space vehicles, it is a word from a different era. It was an era still in the Cold War, when few could imagine a space program without NASA in charge, when few could imagine free enterprise offering rides into space. It became a symbol of a national space program, one size fits all — a vehicle that could build space stations, resupply space stations, and indeed (as a fallback position, in case the funding didn’t come through for space stations in the future) be a space station itself.
Shuttle was dramatically overspecified. Its payload capacity was too large. Its ability to change direction on entry (called cross range), which made its wings much larger than otherwise needed, was dictated not by NASA’s requirements, but by the Department of Defense, whose blessing was necessary for program approval. It wasn’t just a truck, but a Winnebago, capable of acting as a space hotel and science lab as well as a delivery system. These, among other reasons, are why it is so expensive, and such a policy failure.
Yes, while shuttle is a magnificent technical achievement, it truly is a catastrophic policy failure — a failure made almost tangible, in half-billion-dollar increments each time it flies, a few times a year.
And the failure is not in its design — it is in its requirements, its very philosophy, the very notion that a single system can be all things to all people, or even all things to all parts of our space agency. Anything that replaces the shuttle, in terms of those requirements, will suffer from the same flaws and failures.
We don’t need a replacement for the shuttle.
We need a space transportation industry.
It should be like our air transportation industry, or our ground transportation industry, competitive and flexible, to meet the needs of individuals and large corporations, and it should be based on the principles of a market economy — not the wish list of government bureaucrats.
We don’t have a “national airplane.” We don’t have a “national truck,” or a “national bus.” We have a variety of vehicles, tailored to a variety of markets at variety of prices for different customers and desires.
Three decades ago, with hope in our hearts, fresh from our lunar success, we initiated the first space shuttle program. If we wish a vibrant future in space, one in which thousands of people will venture off the planet in pursuit of their dreams, we should hope, even more, that it’s also our last.
Note that this was written about three months before the loss of Columbia.
Let’s hope that this time, with the “change” afoot in Washington, we can (finally) make better policy decisions, free from the blinkered thinking of the past.