George W. Bush’s January 14 speech at NASA headquarters, in which he set the manned space program on a new trajectory, was an oddly dissociated event. NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe stood alone at stage left with his arms hanging limply at his sides and his fingers curled, looking like an eagle that has just eaten a gratifyingly plump mouse but is having trouble digesting it. The President, adopting his customary tank-window squint, briefly praised shuttle astronauts for conducting “important research” and helping to build the International Space Station—and then enthused about the “stunning images” from NASA space telescopes and the investigations being conducted by its probes of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The odd thing was that aside from Bush’s tip of the hat to the shuttle and the station—whose death warrants he was signing—all the triumphs he cited were the work of unmanned robotic spacecraft.
Which pretty much reflects the problem. NASA is two agencies—three, if you count aerospace—in one. Its unmanned programs are flying high: robotic probes have sampled the sands of Mars, mapped every planet in the solar system this side of Pluto, inspected comets and asteroids, photographed infant galaxies near the edge of the observable universe, and made incalculable contributions to terrestrial communications, agriculture, geology, and weather forecasting, all at a fraction of the cost of sending astronauts up there. Meanwhile, the manned program is stuck in low Earth orbit. As Bush noted, “In the past thirty years, no human being has set foot on another world, or ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles—roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts.” It is as if sixteenth-century Spain, three decades after Columbus, lacked a single ship capable of venturing out of sight of land.
Can the Bush plan get manned spaceflight going again—and should it?
Bush was amply justified in deciding to retire the shuttle, which despite all its merits—it is, after all, the world’s only winged, reusable spaceship—never had a raison d’être and had become both an emblem and a cause of NASA’s woes. Dreamed up as a kind of hangover cure in the days following the Apollo lunar missions, when the NASA budget was shrinking from over 4 percent of the federal budget to its current level of under 1 percent, the shuttle was sold to Congress as a cost-effective way of putting humans and satellites in orbit. Taken in by NASA hype, President Nixon assured the nation that “a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back…will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it,” and President Reagan declared, following three test flights of the first space shuttle, Columbia, that shuttles were now “ready to provide economical and routine access to space.”
This was sheer fantasy, as NASA was in a position to know and ought to have admitted. Economical? The shuttle substantially raised the costs of putting vehicles in orbit, rather than reducing them: at well over $300 million per launch, it costs $10,000 per…
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