NASA was surprised by the reaction to its announcement a few weeks ago that it wasn’t going to risk a Shuttle crew to keep the Hubble Space Telescope alive.
It apparently underestimated the popularity of the program. It shouldn’t have.
How many people have screen savers of the Shuttle payload bay, or the space station?
Many, particularly in the space science community, were quick to point out the timing of the decision. Was it just a coincidence that, just a few weeks after the president’s announcement on January 14 of a new human-exploration space policy, in which NASA’s resources would be focused on the goals of sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, Hubble life extension was pronounced to be an unworthy cause on which to risk a Shuttle flight?
Well, actually, it was.
While some of the motivations of the agency in this action remain murky, it’s safe to say that, despite the timing, the decision probably wasn’t a result of the new space policy. The most likely suspect remains the CAIB report on the loss of the Columbia last February, which was released last fall. While the commission didn’t specifically recommend not flying to non-ISS orbits, this was an inferred recommendation from many of the others, given that it’s quite possible that the Shuttle crew might have lived, even had the vehicle been written off, had their mission been to the station, where the damage might have been clearly seen and they would have had a safe haven.
But in the timing of all these events and decisions, there seems to be a disconnect in terms of policy. To the degree that the Hubble decision was based on the Gehman recommendations, that decision must now be revisited. Here’s why.
The Gehman report was delivered last fall, before the president’s January speech. At that time, the space policy of the United States was, among other things, to continue to fly the Space Shuttle as long as possible, until a decision was made to replace it, and its replacement developed. With the loss of Columbia, we had only three orbiters in the Shuttle fleet, making each one very precious if they were to support a program of indefinite duration, particularly given the now-empirical reliability of ninety eight percent (two losses in about a hundred some flights over twenty years). Despite any improvements they’re making, that’s probably the number that NASA is using to estimate future losses, to be conservative.
What does it mean?
At that reliability, there is a forty percent chance of losing another orbiter (which would cost billions and years to replace) in the next twenty five flights. There’s a two in three probability of losing one in the next fifty. That means there’s an excellent chance of losing one over the next ten years, at an optimistic flight rate of five per year. Hence the eagerness to follow the Gehman Commission’s recommendations and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to solve the problem, because the prevailing policy is to keep the Shuttle fleet flying until it’s no longer needed.
OK, now fast forward to January 14th of this year, when the president announces, among other things, that the Shuttle is to be phased out with the planned completion of the International Space Station, in 2010, six years from now.
It’s a new policy world. NASA no longer has to worry about sustaining a three-orbiter Shuttle fleet into an indefinite future–they’ve been told that it only has to fly another thirty flights or so.
In fact, here’s the irony.
While its critics are lambasting the agency for sacrificing Hubble on the altar of the new space policy, the new policy in fact would actually justify a Hubble mission. Consider–if it’s no longer essential to maintain a three-orbiter fleet into the indefinite future, the two percent risk of losing an orbiter now looks small compared to the value of keeping Hubble going for several more years, until we can be assured of a worthy replacement. If, against the odds, we do lose another orbiter on that mission, the worst case is that it will simply take another couple of years to complete station, at which point we’ll still shut down the fleet, if the new policy is to be believed.
So here’s the policy disconnect.
We have one part of NASA (the Shuttle program) furiously running off to implement the recommendations of the CAIB, recommendations which were based on a circa-2003 policy made obsolete on January 14th, 2004, with apparently no recognition of the events of that date. We have another part of NASA desperately trying to implement the new, January policy.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the expensive and delayed Shuttle return-to-flight activities (the latest estimate is to fly again is March, 2005, almost two years after the Columbia loss, and approaching the ridiculously-long standdown after Challenger) should reflect the new, existing policy, and not the old one in which the Gehman report was written. It’s conceivable that, if asked, the commission might not change any of their recommendations, but it’s insane not to ask them, given the dramatic change in national space goals since they issued the report.
Accordingly, I propose that the Gehman Commission be reconvened to weigh in on this issue. It need not be a several-month-long process, or disrupt the lives of the commission members to the degree that the first one did. No long investigations are needed, no facts have changed, except that the nation has a new space policy. It would be appropriate to gather the commission members in a room once more, to review their recommendations from last fall, and to reconsider them in the light of the new space policy that the president announced in January. It need not take more than a day or three.
The costs of it would be minimal, particularly considering the ongoing costs of NASA continuing down an expensive and perhaps pointless road, one costing many hundreds of millions of dollar per year, in developing expensive fixes to a system that we have already stated as policy will be phased out in much less than a decade.
Mr. President, Administrator O’Keefe, please reconvene the commission. Please reconcile this apparent disconnect of the policy of yesteryear with the forward-looking policy that you proclaimed over three months ago. It may indicate that the current NASA policy is correct, but it might alternatively save many millions of taxpayer dollars on fruitless fixes to an obsolete program. And it may create many more beautiful images from distant times and distant galaxies, images that satisfy both scientists’ curiosities, and peoples’ aesthetic souls.