Category Archives: Space and Campaign 2008

Hope, And Change (Part Whatever)

A lot of space enthusiasts have been enthused about Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary, based on his support for commercial space. Unfortunately, his staff is under investigation for a pay-to-play scandal. I’d like to say I’m shocked, but there’s an old saying (and I’ve had some experience with it in looking for spaceport consulting work) that New Mexico is “Louisiana with jalapenosgreen chiles.” And this doesn’t help much with the transition, on top of the Blogojevich thing.

Mike Still Needs An Irony Meter

Joel Achenbach has a piece at the WaPo today on the ongoing NASA/transition foofaraw:

Griffin’s pugnaciousness may not have been the most politically savvy way to lobby to keep his job, but no one could say it was out of character.

No kidding. I found this tragic:

With multiple degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering, Griffin is not reluctant to reveal the confidence he has in his judgments. And he may be lobbying for the ambitious Constellation program as much as for himself. He has always been a true believer in what he calls “the majesty of spaceflight,” and he fervently hopes to see human civilization expand across the solar system.

I believe that he hopes that, which is why it’s such a shame that he’s done more to set us back from that goal in the past three years than anyone else.

And this is an attitude I’ve never understood:

Ed Weiler, a NASA associate administrator (occasionally mentioned in the space community as a potential successor to Griffin), would like to see his boss stick around for a while, particularly with the tricky space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope coming up next spring.

“I’d certainly like to have a leader who was an experienced engineer or whatever,” Weiler said.

Why? Why should the NASA administrator be an experienced engineer? Doesn’t NASA have people at lower levels who are competent to oversee a Shuttle flight, even one for the Hubble repair? Is it the job of the administrator to micromanage at that level?

I never had a problem with Sean O’Keefe not being an engineer — I don’t expect a good NASA administrator to be an engineer. O’Keefe’s problem was not a lack of technical expertise, but the fact that he got gun shy after Columbia, and was no longer able to be decisive or lead, because he feared too much having to tell another set of families on the tarmack that their loved ones were gone.

In general, I don’t think it hurts to have some technical knowledge, though in the case of Griffin, I think it did, because he doesn’t/didn’t understand what the job of the administrator is, which is not to get involved in engineering and drive the results of trade studies in favor of one’s own pet designs. Arguably the best NASA administrator (and there aren’t many good ones — most of them have been bad) was Jim Webb, at least in terms of carrying out administration policy and accomplishing the goal. He was a lawyer.

A Big Sloppy Wet Kiss

That’s what Jeff Kluger gives to NASA and the Bush administration in this Time piece. The very first graf lays out the hero, and the villain:

Getting into a shouting match with the HR rep is not exactly the best way to land a job. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, that’s just what happened last week between NASA administrator Mike Griffin and Lori Garver, a member of Barack Obama’s transition team who will help decide if Griffin keeps his post once the President-elect takes office. If the contretemps did occur, it could help doom not only the NASA chief’s chances, but the space agency’s ambitious plans to get Americans back to the moon.

The fact that those last few words are a link almost make it seem like an emphasis. “Doom the space agency’s plans to get Americans back to the moon!” <sound=”dissonant organ chord, thunderclap, horses whinnying”></sound>

If you in fact follow the link, it’s to a piece that Kluger wrote about a month ago on those wonderful plans. The piece continues on, lauding the Bush administration’s foresight in coming up with a new plan, and putting the people into place to execute it. There is an implicit assumption that if Dr. Griffin is removed, and his inspiring architecture ended, that we will have to leave returning to the moon to another generation, because it’s the only way to do it.

It’s very clear that he has talked only to NASA officials who agree with the thesis, and to no one else. In fact, the only quotes he has are from Scott Horowitz and Chris Shank. With regard to Horowitz, he writes:

“At the time, the shuttle had flown 290 people, and out of those 14 were dead — nearly one in 20,” says Scott Horowitz, a four-time shuttle veteran who designed the Ares 1, one of the new boosters. “We needed something that was an order of magnitude safer.”

He doesn’t mention that Horowitz has left the agency to “spend more time with his family.” And he has a quote from Shank:

“We’ve been moving in the right direction since the Columbia accident [in 2003],” says Chris Shank, NASA’s chief of strategic communications. “The concern is that we’ll lose that.” Lately, that concern appears well-placed.

There is no argument about why it is “the right direction” — simply a statement as though it’s fact. And what would you expect Mike Griffin’s flack to say? That there are a lot of ways to get there, and they just happened to pick this one? That they now realized as they’ve gotten into it that it wasn’t as “safe, simple and soon” as ATK’s Horowitz sold it to be?

Most notably, is who he didn’t seem to have talked to — he didn’t bother to get the side of anyone on the transition team. Here’s what he has to say about Lori Garver:

The Obama team picked Garver to run the NASA transition, in part because of her deep pedigree and long history at the space agency, which saw her climb to the rank of associate administrator. But Garver started as a PAO — NASA-speak for a public affairs officer — and never got involved in the nuts and bolts of building rockets. She is best known by most people as the person who in 2002 competed with boy-band singer Lance Bass for the chance to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket. Neither of them ever left the ground.

Garver’s lack of engineering cred is especially surprising in light of the eggheads with whom Obama has been surrounding himself — most recently, Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu, who has reportedly been tapped to be Secretary of Energy. Garver is also not thought to be much of a fan of Griffin — who is an engineer — nor to be sold on the plans for the new moon program. What she and others are said to be considering is to scrap the plans for the Ares 1 — which is designed exclusively to carry humans — and replace it with Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, which are currently used to launch satellites but could be redesigned, or “requalified,” for humans. Griffin hates that idea, and firmly believes the Atlas and Delta are unsafe for people. One well-placed NASA source who asked not to be named reports that as much as Griffin wants to keep his job, he’ll walk away from it if he’s made to put his astronauts on top of those rockets.

NASA is right to be uneasy about just what Obama has planned for the agency since his position on space travel shifted — a lot — during the campaign. A year before the election he touted an $18 billion education program and explicitly targeted the new moon program as one he’d cut to pay for it. In January of 2008, he lined up much closer to the Bush moon plan — perhaps because Republicans were already on board and earning swing-state support as a result. Three months before the election, Obama fully endorsed the 2020 target for putting people on the moon. But that was a candidate talking and now he’s president-elect, and his choice of Garver as his transition adviser may say more than his past campaign rhetoric.

There is an implication here that in addition to the fact that she’s not technical, she has no interest in manned space. Otherwise (since obviously the evil Obama wants to kill this program, despite the fact that his views evolved to support it during the campaign), why put her in place? But to anyone who knows her, like her or not, that is lunacy. Let’s let Al Fansome do the heavy lifting in her support, in comments over at Space Politics in response to one of our favorite clueless space commentators:

WHITTINGTON: Or, cancelling VSE entirely, which is what I suspect she has in mind


You like to talk like you know space policy, but you obviously don’t know anything about Lori Garver. You have been around for many years, but sometimes you are just a dunce.

I will prove it.

Lori has been a big supporter of the VSE.

On the day that the VSE was announced Lori was on television promoting the VSE. Check out the Lehrer News Hour on January 14, 2004 where she debate Bob Parks.

Relevant excerpts below.

LORI GARVER: I’m very enthused about the initiative. This is what we should be doing with our space program. The reason Mars is exciting when spirit land on it is because we believe we’re going further. The space program is about so much more than science. I absolutely agree, we’ve been a great space science through the robotic program. But it is because we’re going as a species that I think the public really can relate to this, and ultimately what has caused us a tremendous benefit.


LORI GARVER: … But again, it’s that inspiration that calls us to space, and by that it’s not going to be just robots.


LORI GARVER: I want my kids to have somebody who is more interesting to them. The first woman who goes to the moon — we’ve never sent any women to the moon — it’s got to be more interesting than whether or not Britney Spears got married this weekend.


LORI GARVER: To me, it’s definitely more than magic. I believe as humanity, as a species, we are going into space. We have explored this planet, we will continue to explore this planet and, for our very survival, we must also leave this planet. Ultimately, a lunar base as the president announced today is going to help us build new things, like a solar-powered satellite using lunar materials. That will potentially end our dependence on fossil fuels on this planet.

You, and everybody else who is maligning her intentions, owe Lori an apology.

Now, in fairness to Mark, he may have confused VSE with ESAS/Constellation. He has never been able to understand the difference between the two. But the notion that Lori and Alan Ladwig, and George Whitesides, have an agenda to “cancel VSE” or end plans to return to the moon, is ludicrous.

Anyway, Kluger seems to be similarly unaware of her actual history, instead implying that she is just a soccer mom in space. And if he were really aware of the history, he wouldn’t have let the statement about Mike Griffin thinking EELVs are unsafe go unchallenged, and simply act as a stenographer for Shank (or whoever told him that). In fact, he would have challenged whichever NASA/Griffin defender told him that to explain what had happened in the past few years to change Dr. Griffin’s mind, because in 2003, he had a very different idea:

Griffin has made it clear that he is not opposed to using EELV vehicles effectively unmodified from their current versions to launch crewed vehicles. In a May 2003 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program—a short-lived effort to develop a manned spacecraft that was superseded by the CEV—Griffin noted that the term “man rating” dated back to efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to modify ICBMs to carry capsules. “This involved a number of factors such as pogo suppression, structural stiffening, and other details not particularly germane to today’s expendable vehicles. The concept of ‘man rating’ in this sense is, I believe, no longer very relevant.”

He argued that EELVs and other expendable vehicles are already called upon to launch high-value unmanned payloads. “What, precisely, are the precautions that we would take to safeguard a human crew that we would deliberately omit when launching, say, a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission?” he asked. “The answer is, of course, ‘none’. While we appropriately value human life very highly, the investment we make in most unmanned missions is quite sufficient to capture our full attention.”

The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 EELVs, he noted, have a specified design reliability of 98 percent, in line with experience with the premier expendable vehicles to date. If such a vehicle was used to launch a crewed spacecraft equipped with an escape system of just 90 percent reliability, he noted, the combined system would have a 1-in-500 chance of a fatal accident, “substantially better than for the Shuttle.”

So what happened in the interim to turn them into death traps?

If Kluger really wanted to provide a service to Time/CNN’s readers, he’d get out and do some real reporting, and get some dissenting opinions, instead of simply providing Mike Griffin’s NASA with a widely read forum for its propaganda. He would also come up with a slightly more sophisticated space policy template than “With Constellation, the moon, without Constellation, nothing.”

[Update a few minutes later]

Paul Spudis (who was on the Aldridge Commission) has related thoughts:

Many people have conflated the Vision with NASA’s implementation of it, but they are two very different things. Project Constellation is the architecture that NASA has chosen to implement the VSE. In its essentials, Constellation is a launch system, a spacecraft, and a mission design. NASA chose to develop a new series of launch vehicles, the Ares I and V rockets, the Orion crew “capsule” (formerly called the CEV), and a craft designed to land on the Moon, the Altair lunar lander. The mission design is to launch the crew in the Orion capsule on an Ares I into low Earth orbit, launch the Altair lander and rocket departure stage separately on the Ares V, rendezvous and dock with the lander and depart for Earth orbit to the Moon. The crew would land and explore the Moon from the Altair spacecraft, return to the Orion in lunar orbit, and return to Earth in that vehicle.

Much of the criticism of NASA in recent years is actually criticism of this architectural plan, not necessarily of the goals of the Vision (although some have questioned it). But this architecture is an implementation of the VSE; it is not the VSE itself. The Vision specified long-range goals and objectives, not the means to attain them. To briefly review, we are going to the Moon to learn the skills and develop the technologies needed to live and work productively on other worlds. And there are many ways to skin that cat.

Yes. That’s apparently too complicated a concept for many (including many journalists) to understand.

“Hitler’s Last Days In The Bunker”

Hey, I think that it’s time (long past time) for Mike Griffin to go, but I think that characterization of his behavior in comments at this story is a little over the top. I mean, I don’t expect him to eat the muzzle after his wife takes poison. Though he does seem determined to burn the entire NASA budget to the ground rather than have it turned to some purpose that would actually open up space for the American people…

That said, the title of Bobby Block’s piece is a little understated. If his reporting is accurate (and we have no reason from past behavior of Dr. Griffin or others described to think not) he is being much more than a “transition problem” for the incoming president. This in itself, I think, speaks volumes about Mike and the NASA culture:

Those who spoke for this article, including a member and staff in Congress, NASA employees, aerospace executives and consultants, spoke only on condition that their names not be used…

…The Bush White House has pledged cooperation, and many agency leaders have told staff to cooperate fully. Griffin himself sent a memo urging employees “to answer questions promptly, openly and accurately.”

At the same time, he made clear he expected NASA employees to stay on message.

For example, transition-team interviews have been monitored by NASA officials “taking copious notes,” according to congressional and space-community sources. Employees who met with the team were told to tell their managers about the interview.

The desperation strong-arm tactics being used here are unsurprising, but are also not in keeping with an agency supposedly responsible to public accountability and the taxpayers. As anyone who has been reading this blog for long knows, I was not (to understate) a huge supporter of Senator Obama as a presidential candidate. But on the issue of space, I was largely agnostic, because I had no reason to believe that Senator McCain would be any improvement, and I was certainly not a supporter of president Bush on the issue, other than the basic concept of the Vision for Space Exploration (and a few bright spots, like White House support for COTS in the face of high-level NASA indifference). In this case, because I personally know some of the people on the space transition team, while I have had some policy differences with them over the years, I think that, relative to the current NASA administration, they are on the side of the angels. So I was gratified to read this:

…this week, Garver told a meeting of aerospace representatives in Washington that “there will be change” to NASA policy and hinted that Obama would name a new administrator soon, according to participants.

At this point, and particularly after reading this, it can’t happen soon enough for me. Here’s the real problem:

The tensions are due to the fact that NASA’s human space flight program is facing its biggest crossroads since the end of the Apollo era in the 1970s. The space shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010, and the next-generation Constellation rockets won’t fly before 2015.

Nearly four years ago, President Bush brought in Griffin to implement a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a prelude to going to Mars. Griffin and his team selected Constellation, with its NASA-designed Ares I rocket and Orion capsule, as cheaper and safer than existing rockets. Constellation – especially Ares 1 — is the center of what Griffin sees as his legacy to return humans to the frontiers of space.

He wants to “return humans to the frontiers of space,” but he is perfectly happy to put forth a plan that ensures that it will only be a few humans (government employees) a couple times a year, for many billions per trip. Talk about Apollo on steroids.

It’s the Apollo budget on steroids as well, which is why Apollo was unsustainable financially. This is only one area in which he completely ignored, or even thumbed his nose at, the Aldridge Commission. As I recommended to the transition team, go read the report, and reflect on how much Mike Griffin’s NASA has deviated from its recommendations, and completely blown off the work of the contractors who worked to present options that would have been in keeping with it.

Unfortunately, due to the jobs issue and politics, it’s possible that this disastrous architecture will continue. But if it does, fortunately, it is pretty clear (though little consolation) that it will do so under new “leadership.”

[Thursday morning update]

In another dispatch from Bizarro World, in yet another display of his magnificent superhuman powers in miscomprehension of plain English, Mark Whittington writes that I (as opposed to the commenter at Bobby Block’s site, who I quoted in the post title) am comparing Mike Griffin to Hitler. He also demonstrates that he has no idea what Godwin’s Law is, if he thinks that I “violated” it.

Well, I guess it’s technically true if, by “comparing,” one means pointing out that he is not. I’ll “compare” Mark to Hitler similarly. Unfortunately, I’m less able to “compare” him in the same manner to Bozo the Clown.

[A few minutes later]

A funny (in a sad way) comment over at NASA Watch (I have a couple comments over there as well for Apollo worshipers):

Remembering that Mike Griffin explained his Orion/Ares system as ‘Apollo on Steroids’, and with what we know about steroid use, Mr. Griffin running off the rails like this [2 1/2 year old project two years behind? Don’t you trust what I’m telling you?] can simply be explained as the reaction of his body to heavy steroid use.

Verbally combative, liver damage, shrunken testicles. We’ll get back to you about the latter two effects.

I’ve heard it’s a tough habit to kick.

[Update about lunchtime]

Mark now updates, hilariously and delusionally, to fantasize that “my rage knows no bounds.” Only he would confuse amusement with “rage.”

[Update mid afternoon]

Dr. Griffin claims to be “appalled” at the Orlando Sentinel report. I think that, like people who when they apologize are really only sorry they got caught, he is appalled by the fact that his actions have been reported. I don’t see any denials of the specifics in his protest.

[Evening update (late evening on the east coast — I’m in LA)]

There’s a good discussion in comments on this topic over at Space Politics. “Anonymous.Space” has good commentary as usual, but this is a key point, I think:

…it’s the transition team’s job to ask questions, and Griffin should understand that and know better than to launch unprovoked, petulant attacks on them in a public setting. He, and more importantly NASA, need the transition team on NASA’s side. Griffin should be thankful that the NASA transition team is wholly composed of NASA boosters (most agencies are not so lucky), and work with the team in a transparent manner to develop the best possible set of materials and options for the new Administration. If Griffin is incapable of doing that, whatever the reason, then he should resign immediately. It doesn’t do Constellation, or NASA at large, any favors to have its Administrator engage in such uselessly childish behavior in view of the public eye, the new Administration, and the incoming Congress.

Considering that it was a Democratic administration coming in, this really is the best possible team that he could have expected. In fact, it’s pretty good even in an absolute sense, given their sympathy to both space settlement and NewSpace, which of course could be one of Mike’s problems with them. It’s quite likely that a McCain transition team would be much worse. I never heard any real signs of promise in McCain space policy during the campaign other than that Steidle was one of his advisors. There’s certainly nothing in McCain’s history to indicate that he would do anything interesting in space. It just happens that a lot (though by no means all) of the most devoted space activists are Democrats. Let’s hope they can make more happen this time than they did in the Clinton administration.


How To Implement Prop Depots?

With the (at least hoped for) imminent departure of Mike Griffin, there may be opportunities for more sensible approaches to carrying out plans to expand humanity into the solar system. One of the key elements will be propellant depots, and Jon Goff has some policy thoughts on how to (and how not to) make them happen. They echo some thoughts that I presented at Space Access on his panel on the subject in March, but he’s expanded on them quite a bit.

The NASAverse

Clark Lindsey has some thoughts on two parallel universes, in which one has orders of magnitude higher costs than the other. As he notes, I too hope that the new administration will reside in the one with the low costs, but if it does, it will be fought tooth and nail by legislators to whom jobs are more important than either taxpayers’ money or progress in space.

[Update a while later]

I see that, amusingly, Mark Whittington is foolishly attempting to lecture his intellectual betters on matters that he doesn’t understand:

If the sole purpose of Ares/Orion was just to get people into low Earth orbit, Clark would certainly have a valid point. But the purpose of Ares/Orion is to get people into Low Earth Orbit in a vehicle (Orion) designed to go to the Moon. Dragon doesn’t have to go to the Moon. (Of course, imagining a Dragon that could do that, with the extra radiation shielding, the extra consumables, and so on would be an interesting thought experiment. Could a Falcon 9 Heavy still loft such a vehicle?).

There is vastly insufficient difference between a vehicle that goes to the moon and one that goes to LEO to justify the cost difference between Orion and Dragon. A lunar mission requires a) additional radiation shielding, b) twice the thickness of the entry heat shield and c) extra consumables (two of which he points out). That doesn’t translate into orders of magnitude in cost difference by any sane cost model. As for “lofting” it, it doesn’t need to be lofted in a single flight. Once you break out of the notion that you have to do everything in a single launch, it becomes easy to build both a spacious crew capsule, and a service module with abundant consumables. But Elon’s BFR follow on would even be able to “loft” it in one go, and I’d be willing to bet that he could get there on a billion dollars or less, extrapolating costs from Falcon 1 and 9 development. Again, this could be done at much less cost (both development and operational) than is currently planned for the Orion/Ares combination. What part of already spent ten billion on Ares without its even having passed a legitimate PDR, while Elon has only spent a small fraction of a billion does Mark not understand?

This is pork, not progress.

[Late afternoon update]

Now Mark says I (in addition to fantasizing that I claimed to be his intellectual better) that breaking up CM and SM would require three launches “in a short time.” No. They would require two launches, one for each system element, and one or many launches for propellant, but none of which, other than the CM launch, would have to occur in “a short time.” Propellant could be stored on orbit for an indefinitely long time with proper depot design, and there is nothing intrinsically in an SM that couldn’t allow weeks or months of on-orbit LEO storage.

I don’t know where this myth comes from. People who want to justify tens of billions for a heavy lifter, I guess.

It’s A Start

We’re finally starting to take the asteroid threat seriously enough to start dedicating new telescopes to looking for them. A hundred million dollars seems like a pretty cheap insurance policy against another Tunguska or worse, in a populated area.

Unfortunately, we’re not developing the kind of spacefaring capability we need to do something about it if we see one coming. This is one kind of change that I’d be happy to see with the incoming administration. But it remains to be seen what space policy will come out of the process.

“Whistling Past The Graveyard”

Like Thomas James, that’s exactly what I thought when I read the comments by (former astronaut, now ATK VP) Charlie Precourt in this piece by Brian Berger on the space transition team questions:

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.