It's Time For NASA To Get Back On Track!
The Review of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee is expected to publish its report at the end of the month. It is charged with the thankless task of reaffirming or redirecting NASA's vision for space exploration. What should the agency be doing with its existing hardware and its plans for the future? The real catch is the part of their charter that reads, “fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.”
Money isn't NASA's only problem, but it has been its biggest problem for decades. NASA is one of the most successful agencies in history, providing the best return on investment of any government agency in my lifetime.
My main concerns with NASA's plans going forward include the decision to ground the space shuttle, the woefully inadequate funding for the last several decades and the absence of a space program that will restore the sense of wonder and adventure to space exploration that we knew in the 1960s.
The continuing debate for several years over the Constellation program and alternatives to the Orion/Ares architecture needs to be resolved. There is a general feeling that NASA's 2007 trade-off study of those alternatives, updated last year, is tainted and protective of the status quo. NASA officials are best qualified to make that evaluation if they can find it within themselves to be objective.
The international space station is one of the great engineering marvels of history and is now funded only through 2015. The political decision to make Russia a full partner in the ISS condemned it to a 51.6-degree orbit. That orbit has pretty well compromised its utilization for anything but a laboratory in space. There are many highly qualified scientists prepared to exploit the ISS beyond 2015. We should fund it and operate it for as long as it is viable.
NASA's current plans call for grounding the shuttle in 2010, launching an Orion/Ares mission in 2015, returning to the moon by 2020 and flying a mission to Mars “sometime after 2030.” The 2015 date could easily slip to 2016 or beyond, and is only crucial in limiting “the gap” created by the arbitrary and self-imposed grounding of the shuttle and the first flight of our next-generation manned spacecraft. The 2020 date is only significant if we choose to compete with the Russians or the Chinese who, conceivably, could land a man on the moon in that time frame. If NASA meets either or both of these deadlines, it contributes nothing to maintaining America's preeminence in space, which should be our principal focus.
I believe strongly that we should continue to fly the shuttle while we develop our next generation of spacecraft in an orderly fashion. Continuing shuttle operations will automatically minimize any gap, eliminate pressure on the first manned Orion/Ares mission date, allow time to update trade-off studies of Ares, shuttle-C, Jupiter 120, Delta IV and any other candidate, and allow NASA to retain its trained work force. Continuing to fly the space shuttle is the only practical way to shorten “the gap” and remove our vulnerability to future Russian political pressure. The only price we would pay is a delay in the non-time-critical deployment of the next-generation spacecraft.
Safety has always been a high priority with NASA, but back in the 1960s, it was kept in perspective with other objectives. Today, NASA is a reflection of America's risk-averse culture. Following the loss of Columbia in 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board pushed NASA further in that direction. Safety has now become a convenient whipping boy to sell termination of the shuttle to the public in order to divert the $3 billion annual operating costs to the Constellation program.
Our shuttle orbiters are less than 25 years old, while some of our most sophisticated military weapons systems have been in operation for more than 50 years. While each orbiter was designed for a service life of 100 missions, they average less than 30 missions flown. Shuttle orbiters are subjected to a critical rebuilding after each mission, and they undergo regularly scheduled overhauls and upgrades. The shuttle orbiters are the safest manned vehicles we have ever built and are safer today than the day we began flying them.
The fact that the 2020 date would also slip is academic. While there is good political, military and economic justification for the Russians or Chinese to go to the moon, we have no reason to race them back to a place we visited 50 years before.
Yes, the shuttle orbiters are expensive to operate. So has been every vehicle since Mercury and Gemini, and so, too, will be our next-generation manned vehicle — more so than we now project. Constellation is the third program in a row with an announced goal to reduce the cost of putting a pound in orbit by a factor of 10. Going into space will always be expensive. It is time for Congress and the American people to decide whether or not they want to remain the preeminent spacefaring nation of the world. If so, they need to be willing to pay for it. The money we invested in the 1960s powered our economic engine for the next 30 years. We can do an encore if we make the right decisions today.
Part of NASA's funding problem is its symbiotic relationship with Congress. For years NASA has provided low-ball costs and optimistic schedules to Congress in order to get budgets approved that quickly proved to be inadequate. Instead of quietly struggling to achieve national goals with inadequate funding, NASA should fight for adequate, multiyear funding. When it comes to space-related issues, NASA needs to be the leader, not a follower. In recent weeks we have witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Congress cutting $500 million from NASA's next budget — an investment for future returns, while approving $800 billion of stimulus funding — essentially all expenditures with no return.
The so-called benefits of establishing an outpost on the moon are ephemeral and will be quite costly. Outposts on the moon are what I call “Mars Lite” — going beyond earth orbit, while avoiding commitment to the next real milestone of human exploration — Mars. Claims of mining Helium 3, prospecting for water, and rehearsing for Mars are not compelling reasons for returning to the moon. A lunar outpost diversion will cost at least $150 billion and carry with it the potential of becoming a financial swamp that could delay our exploration of Mars indefinitely.
NASA should embrace a goal that exceeds our grasp, a program with bold vision and great risk that requires dedication, courage and teamwork to accomplish. The near-term focus should be on visits to asteroids or the moons of Mars — missions that lead directly to establishing human presence on Mars.
In the 1960s, Gus Grissom encouraged funding with the line, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Times have changed. Today, it will take a Buck Rogers mission to get the bucks and public support.
Cunningham flew the first test flight of the Apollo Program, Apollo 7, and is the author of “The All-American Boys.”