There’s really nothing quite like the Space Shuttle. Every part of it has been subjected to countless hours of engineering with the culmination being one of the most complex and powerful objects that man has ever created. All that being said however it’s getting on a bit at 29 years old and the revolutions in technology since its inception have set the stage for it to be succeeded by the next big thing. It will still remain firmly in our heads for a long time to come as the icon that heralded in the new space industry but the time has come for the Shuttle to retire to greener pastures.
Obama seems to support this vision with a new plan that focuses on what NASA does best: pioneering technologies and that are risk heavy and lack the current commercialization opportunity that would make them attractive to private industry. Following on from this idea it would then be preferable for NASA to delegate the routine tasks to private industry where possible, saving them an appreciable amount in research and operational costs. This is why I supported the closing down of the Shuttle program as whilst it is something that I and the wider world will miss the time has come for private industry to take over some of the mundane aspects of space travel so that NASA can return to the innovators they’re meant to be.
It seems however that some just can’t let the status quo go:
NASA currently plans to retire the space shuttle fleet in the fall after flying the last of four final shuttle missions remaining for this year. The next shuttle to fly is Discovery, which is poised to blast off on April 5 to deliver vital supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station.
The fleet’s retirement would end more than 29 years of U.S. space shuttle flights and leave NASA without a dedicated American spacecraft for launching astronauts into orbit.
Some U.S. senators and members of Congress have expressed support for extending the shuttle program, with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) filing a bill last week formally seeking a reprieve for NASA’s space shuttle fleet.
Whilst I can appreciate Hutchison’s concern for keeping the Shuttle going I can’t help but feel that it’s done only to win some political points with her constituents. Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center which employs around 3,200 public servants and well over 15,000 contracting staff. All of these are dedicated to the manned space flight programs which will suffer under Obama’s proposed plan for NASA. Other supporters of the bill are from the state of Florida, home to the Kennedy Space Center which is the current host to the shuttles and the majority of America’s launch facilities. It would then be advantageous to them to continue the Shuttle program as long as they could to keep the loyalty of their constituents, but it comes at the cost of revolutionizing NASA. Something which I believe it is desperately in need of.
The bill also calls for some form of heavy lift launcher to be ready to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station by 2013. The earliest scheduled date for a Ares-I launch was sometime in 2014 with more recent estimates pegging it around 2017. The only way that NASA will get such a capability will be to buy it off private companies such as SpaceX, who’s Falcon 9 is much more likely to reach that deadline date than anything NASA comes up with. I can’t seem to track down if there’s any additional funding included in the bill to support this more aggressive timeline but needless to say it would be needed if they wanted to meet it.
As much as I’d love the Shuttle to continue on I know that it’s not the right path if we want to go further into the solar system and beyond. Obama’s plan for NASA showed a great deal of strategic focus with creating a real and sustainable space infrastructure that could support future astronauts in their endeavours outside our atmosphere. Introducing a bill like this one just to score a few cheap political points is what has been keeping NASA back for decades and it’s only now that we have an opportunity to let NASA shine again.