A worker on the program says that now is no time to retire Shuttle.
It’s very appealing to imagine continuing the program, but it’s just not realistic. The decision was really made on February 1st, 2003, when the fleet size went (once again) from four to three, and this time there were no structural spares from which to build a replacement, as we did after the Challenger loss. As former Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale has explained, it is simply not practical to continue to fly. And since he wrote that, almost two years ago, it has gotten progressively more difficult to resurrect the program, with the ongoing shutdowns of second- and third-tier suppliers, who are no longer in business. The time to argue against this was six years ago, after the VSE was announced, because the decision was part and parcel of it, and while some politicians have made noise about trying to keep the program alive, nothing has ever happened to allow it. The Gap always existed, and a responsible NASA administrator would have done everything in his power to minimize it, and things could have been done to do so (for instance, allowing the original CEV flyoff scheduled for 2006 to go forward, and pick one to fly on an Atlas). Instead, Mike Griffin wasted billions on a flawed program that has expanded it, almost a year per year.
When you keep heading in a direction, eventually you get where you are going, and here we are. Space policy has, in general, been a slow-motion train wreck for decades, and now we’re watching the locomotive start to head over the cliff. It is the result of a lot of flawed policy decisions made over the years, almost all of whose consequences were perfectly predictable, and the piper has finally come to receive his wages for the clumsy dancing. Because space policy, at least human spaceflight policy, isn’t important, and hasn’t been since the early sixties. All that has ever mattered is the jobs, and now, even many of those will be gone. It’s time to grow up, and understand that you are never going to get good policy from a democracy on matters like this. Those who want to see us go into space are going to have to accept that the only route is one that provides a real return, that people are willing to pay for. Flawed and problematic as the new direction is, it at least offers some small amount of hope that we will be able to transition to such an environment. But the days of monolithic NASA monopoly programs for humans in space are over.