NASA Forecast: Rancor with a Foreshadowing of Angst

Posted: July 3, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , ,

nasa self destructThe Washington Post addresses the last shuttle flight as a sort of metaphor for NASA itself.

Shuttle jobs?  All they are is dust in the wind.  The infrastructure?  Abandon in place. The future…

So what is the way ahead for U.S. manned spaceflight?  It appears to be all hat and no cattle (and the hat costs so much that it precludes buying some cattle).

If so, why does China want to push round mounds of renminbi into their manned space program?  It’s all for the prestige (analogous to looking good in the shower) and providing dual-use make-work for their armies of engineers, technocrats, and the China Great Wall Industrial Corporation. 

Ah, but back to NASA and the WaPo article:

Here’s Bob Crippen, who was the pilot of the first shuttle mission, STS-1, back in 1981: “I’ve never seen NASA so screwed up as it is right now. . . . They don’t know where they’re going.”

It gets worse.

“We’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington, D.C. — both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government,” [shuttle Launch Director Mike] Leinbach said recently at a news conference here. He said he was “embarrassed” about the lack of guidance.

What to do?  Quick, blame someone else (either the previous administration or alternatively, Congress, who is responsible for funding NASA) and maybe no one will notice anything.

“We have brought the program back from the brink,” [NASA Deputy Administrator Lori] Garver said. “We inherited a program that was in disarray.”

So the current NASA crew snatched space victory from the jaws of defeat?  How so?

Obama zeroed out Constellation in the president’s 2011 budget request. Under the NASA authorization act passed by Congress, Constellation is officially dead, though some major elements are still lurking, rebranded.

Brought back by defunding Constellation (in order to pursue commercial space)?  I’m good with the decision but I wouldn’t call that bringing NASA back from the brink.  So now, NASA is no longer in disarray, but is in…array?  How about other voices on the Constellation cancellation and shuttle retirement?

“What they did was abandon a plan for no plan,” [former NASA Administrator Mike] Griffin said. “We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing.”

Of course, Griffin has his legacy in play, so his position is pretty predictable, but still, what hath the shuttle program—including this last one—all wrought?

In retrospect, that [the shuttle] was arguably too much spaceship for most of what was needed for missions in low-Earth orbit. NASA wants to get away from using a single vehicle to carry humans and cargo. It’s safer and cheaper to send cargo separately.

After Challenger, the military utility of having a reasonably diverse set of ways to get to space became obvious.  Now, it appears, NASA sees it too.  But the shuttle program still lumbered along all those years.

Perhaps the real lesson is this: if the plan is just to spend money, Constellation was great for “old space.”  If the plan now is just to spend money, commercial (that is, “new space”) space will do the job as well.  But if the vision is for NASA to use a manned space capability to make life better for people on earth, the shuttle’s legacy has been an epic and expensive failure. And the way ahead, even sans shuttle, looks much the same.

Without a space vision, the space people perish.

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