The future of American spaceflight

I'm collecting analyses from various better-informed bloggers than myself about what Columbia means for the future of NASA and for the future of manned spaceflight in general. I'm afraid I am too ignorant to comment on the relative merits of these arguments, other than express my certainty that we must continue. How, I do not know. But this is wht others have to say:

Trent Telenko, Winds of Change.NET:

If we want "assured human access to space" that is for American national security. Then that calls for a small, reusable, high flight rate military space plane and a seperate military space service to use it. The USAF has made clear that it would rob money from a military space plane to fund the F/A-22 and you can't launch a space plane from a Nimitz class carrier.

If you want assured civilian human access to space, then putting out launch service bid to private launch service providers is the way to go. Lock-Mart or Boeing are fully capable of putting crewed capsules or space planes on their Atlas and Delta rockets respectively. Orbital Sciences has made similar proposals for NASA's orbital rescue vehicle.

Whatever we do, we need to retire the huge standing army associated with the NASA shuttle. We can no longer afford to allow NASA to have a monopoly on manned space flight. NASA is a Cold War Space Agency. The Cold War is over and the centralized government bureaucracy paradigm has been shown to be a under performing failure.

It is time to demobilize NASA and move on to opening the space frontier.

There are other government entities that can do the job of exploration, the military for one, National Science Foundation for another, and universities for yet another. And the private sector awaits if the regulatory and tax environment can be made attractive enough. It is time that we used them all in the traditions of late 19th and early 20th century America.

Rand Simberg (who I need to add to my blogroll), at Transterrestrial Musings:

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don't know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas--not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we're doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

Greg Easterbrook, writing in TIME Magazine:

In two decades of use, shuttles have experienced an array of problems�engine malfunctions, damage to the heat-shielding tiles�that have nearly produced other disasters. Seeing this, some analysts proposed that the shuttle be phased out, that cargo launches be carried aboard by far cheaper, unmanned, throwaway rockets and that NASA build a small "space plane" solely for people, to be used on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space.
For 20 years, the cart has been before the horse in U.S. space policy. NASA has been attempting complex missions involving many astronauts without first developing an affordable and dependable means to orbit. The emphasis now must be on designing an all-new system that is lower priced and reliable. And if human space flight stops for a decade while that happens, so be it. Once there is a cheaper and safer way to get people and cargo into orbit, talk of grand goals might become reality. New, less-expensive throwaway rockets would allow NASA to launch more space probes�the one part of the program that is constantly cost-effective. An affordable means to orbit might make possible a return to the moon for establishment of a research base and make possible the long-dreamed-of day when men and women set foot on Mars. But no grand goal is possible while NASA relies on the super-costly, dangerous shuttle.

Dale Amon, from Samizdata.net:

So NASA must get the fleet flying again. President Bush has already said we will not abandon space. In the community, we all knew that. It's simply too important now.

There will almost certainly be a push for a replacement vehicle. The shuttle is, after all, a 1975 base level of technology. It's been upgraded and retro fitted, but even the newest shuttle, the Endeavour, is nearing 15 years old. The problems are budgetary and the inability of the "old aerospace" to perform on anything like a reasonable time and budget. I had actually much hoped NASA would work with the existing shuttles until the end of the decade, long enough to let the start up companies move in and revolutionize the field.

NASA will go to Boeing or Lockmart for a replacement. They are not going to talk to XCor or Armadillo or any of the other companies who will develop the true space ships.

What is my guess? I will suggest we'll see a half hearted program for a shuttle replacement initiated. It will run over budget or be stillborn like every other such program in the last 15 years. The ISS schedule will stretch out to a completion date of 2010, almost 30 years after Ronald Reagan called for a space station to be completed in 10 years. An X-Prize space ship will fly suborbital this year or next year and there will be private tourists on private suborbital flights by 2006 and orbital by 2010. NASA will then buy one for crew turnaround. The Russians will get a big capital infusion to turn out more Soyez and Protons.

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