New Vision

So, why has the shuttle been kept running so long? Gregg, you ask this in your installment, and I think I have an answer.

You emphasize pork-barrel politics—but I don’t think that is the main explanation. Senators who want NASA largesse in their districts may support the status quo for this reason. However, a bold new program that spent just as many tax dollars for their constituents would serve equally well. Pinning the blame on “the system” in this manner is a dead end—because nothing is going to change the pork-barrel process anytime soon.

I argue that manned space flight occupies a particularly favored spot in the nation’s psyche—right up there with motherhood and apple pie. If there were a choice between TWO viable manned space programs, I think that we would see real debate, and the shuttle would lose. However, as long as the question is posed as shuttle vs. nothing, then the shuttle is going to win.

It would be politically very unpalatable to say that the United States couldn’t hack it in space anymore. All the issues I discussed in the first installment would rise up. You’d have people making impassioned speeches about the emotional side. Others would dredge up imagery from NASA’s golden years and remind Americans of their pride at the moon landing. Who is going to stop the “quest for the stars”?

You ask why Congress lets it go on, even after the fatal accidents. The fact is we want the manned space program enough to tolerate some deaths along the way. As I argued in the first installment, I think that would be an admirable stance—if the program was basically sound in other respects.

NASA arguments have presented the case as shuttle vs. nothing, and as long as they do they’ll keep getting funded. Meanwhile, the opposite path isn’t exactly appealing. How can you change direction with at least an implicit mea culpa that the shuttle was a bad idea? And once you go there it is only a short distance from saying (or implying), “Yup, that great crew did die in vain.” Now, that is one hell of a lot of crow to eat. What person (whether in NASA, or the White House, or elsewhere) wants to stand up and say that to Congress and the American public?

The real issue here—and probably the single most important factor for the future of the space program—is this: NASA has no compelling vision. There is no alternative plan for manned space flight. Until we have something better, the nation is going to cling to the incredibly flawed shuttle program.

A vision for NASA should push the envelope in both the “how” (the vehicle and technology) and the “why” (what are we going to space to do). But at the moment we are drifting listlessly in both directions. It is not clear why we are sending people up into space—the experiments that Columbia performed were incredibly modest (and that is being charitable). As we’ve already discussed, the “how” of the space program is the obsolete shuttle that does not push any new technological boundaries.

Suppose for a moment that there was a bold new plan. It could draw on the latest technology and construct a new generation of launchers. That might include a new manned launch vehicle—perhaps a space plane like the shuttle or the X-15. It should also include a mission statement that generates some of the excitement of the NASA of old.

A new vision like this would be tremendously exciting and would offer something for everybody. That includes NASA engineers and astronauts, but the other players could get something also. There would be some pork for Congress to dole out, and even the aerospace contractors that you accuse of profiteering would get something new to sell.

I think that the only way to fix the errors in the shuttle program is by proposing this kind of bold new vision. Only then will we have a real alternative to the shuttle—and without an alternative I can’t see the status quo changing very much.

Note that I say a new “vision.” I agree with you that this means both some expendable rockets and a new vehicle for manned space flight. But the key to making this happen is less the technical content (although that has to be good) and more the big concept. That’s what you need to sell Congress, the public, and ultimately the NASA rank and file.

The time to do this is now—for all the obvious reasons. The only trouble is nobody has proposed the vision.