Friday marked the final flight of the space shuttle program with the launch of space shuttle Atlantis. For many, its a bittersweet day, as it may be up to five years before another astronaut launches from US soil, forcing us to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft—and our budget to afford paying them $56 million per seat.
For others, it’s a day for that well known Washington practice, fearmongering:
Human spaceflight is dangerous — and it’s about to get more so, according to former Johnson Space Center director Christopher Kraft, who says NASA is making a mistake by retiring the space shuttle.
Kraft has co-written a letter, endorsed by a number of Apollo-era NASA veterans and astronauts, contending that the international space station will become more hazardous for astronauts without the shuttle’s resources as an emergency backup.
“In a worst-case scenario, deterioration and loss of systems on an abandoned ISS could result in an uncontrolled, catastrophic reentry with risks to populated areas around the world,” the letter states.
Robert L. Crippen, pilot of the first shuttle mission in 1981 and one of the letter’s endorsers, said the shuttle’s retirement will make it impossible to replace large components on the station should they fail. The Soyuz payload capacity is much smaller than the shuttle’s.
“If it runs into any significant problem, it could be the demise of the station,” Crippen said.
“Captain, it appears to be a dangerous mass of Governmentium. We should avoid it at all costs.”
Yes, folks, it is “the sky is falling!” taken literally. I’m not going to say that these dangers are a fantasy—it’s far more possible than, say, ancient Mayan gods coming back during next year’s holiday season and violently asking “Where’s the beef?”—but it seems to be a bit overblown. According to NASA, there are a lot of space debris out there, but I have yet to hear about a satellite taking out a city block or a toilet seat turning a poor woman into a Grim Reaper.* I think the fears are a tad overblown, which really means somebody isn’t getting as much money from Uncle Sam and the Taxpayers as they want.
Now, let it be known that I am a tremendous fan of NASA. I think of all the federal government agencies, departments, bureaus, centers, commissions, committees, councils, boards, task forces, and who knows what else, I dislike NASA the least. Being a science fiction geek, I like anything that has to do with space, and I really do feel that our future is up there. But the agency has been floundering for the past twenty years, tied to a boondoggle of a space station that has been constantly revised towards mediocrity, diminishing public enthusiasm for real life space exploration as other problems mount, and of course, the insidious barbs of Washington politics. Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle, which lorded over this period in our space history, has been little more than a glorified taxi service, a far step back from the then-ambitious Apollo project. Focus on the “Shuttle,” and less on the “Space.” And what follows it is even less ambitious and a greater step back: essentially rehashed Apollo leftovers.
I think that some part of space operations will be carried on by the US government, and may even be legitimate: mainly spy satellites that give our leaders real intelligence that they can base decisions on. But otherwise, what is there to gain by having government involved in space flight? In fact, there is quite a lot to lose.
Since we won the first Space Race, people just aren’t interested in sending unmanned probes to Mars or astronauts up to the ISS. They want laser cannons and X-Wings, or at the very least, a manned mission to Mars or a space elevator. With decreased public interest, there is also less willingness to pay. I’ve spoken to more than a few people who are astonished that we pay millions to send people into orbit when there are a multitude of problems down on Earth they think we should be focusing on. I think that feeling is probably pretty commonplace, and thanks to that, nearly all space exploration in the United States is hamstrung, since politicians avoid that topic and focus on other things.
That’s why the free market can work—let the people who truly care about space exploration give their money and resources freely to the cause, while others who are less interested save their money and resources for other things they support. It’s a basic, win-win scenario, and the space industry is one of the areas where private enterprise has been really outperforming the government, and doing it publicly. The Ansari X Prize raised the bar for private and relatively cheap spaceflight, generating a ton of interest and introducing commerical astronauts to our world. Its sequel, the Google Lunar X Prize, is still on track to have private groups (not necessarily for-profits) put an unmanned lander on the Moon by 2015. Richard Branson, of course, is still pushing forward with Virgin Galactic, with over 300 wealthy tourists already signed up for its $200,000 jaunts; according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, only 517 people total have been to space, so Branson will dramatically increase the astronaut population, in a way that NASA could only dream of. (And there are a lot of competitors trying to work out suborbital tourism, too.) Bigelow Aerospace—my personal favorite—has not one, but two space stations in orbit, both of which happen to be inflatable. (That’s right, we don’t need to go through super-expensive time consuming module construction, we just inflate a space station now. Available at your local Home Depot for 25% off.) And finally, there’s the darling of the space news media—SpaceX, founded by Pay Pal co-founder Elon Musk, and which recently received a $3 billion contract from NASA to launch “satellites and potentially astronauts into space.” (Naturally, the story worries that they may be “cutting corners,” but from the non-Euclidean mess that is government spaceflight, there are probably a ton of corners to be cut.)
Of course, there are some people worrying about what will happen, about how other countries will get ahead of us. Countries like Russia, China, India, and possibly Iran (which is surely a joke, right?) To this I say: so what? It’s not a zero-sum game. In fact, we’re benefitting from Russia’s space program, in that we have the Soyuz pod to fall back on. We don’t lose anything if China goes to the Moon; sure, our e-peen will probably shrink a little, but mature Americans will not be upset. Instead, it will be a great chance to observe what they do, copy what works, ignore what doesn’t, and improve our own space program. And, if the going gets rough, we can sell them insurance. Another win-win scenario.
So do not fret about the future of spaceflight when the shuttle is retired. It is not in danger, not by a long shot. If anything, it is on the threshold of moving into a vibrant and energetic phase. The free market can and, more importantly, will take over spaceflight for the long run. Government space operations will continue in some fashion. We could cut NASA’s entire budget and not be in danger of never going back to space. We’ll likely not get lasers and X-Wings by the time our generation moves on, but hey, I could at least move on while on the Moon.
*Yes, that’s a Dead Like Me reference. It doesn’t imply I was a fan.