The space shuttle Columbia suffered catastrophic failure on her return from orbit on 1 February, killing all aboard. Retired Navy Admiral Hal Gehman heads the investigation to determine what happened. It is likely he and his team will identify the probable cause and conceivably even the precise cause. This will take months, during which the shuttle fleet will stand down; and then perhaps after months and years and billions of dollars, a redesigned and rebuilt diminished shuttle fleet will return to flight. Having now lost 40% of the shuttles built, we must ask if the program is worth it—and the answer is not obvious.
The shuttle always has been a capability in search of a mission. The stated original purpose was cheap and reliable access to space, but both goals are unmet. Now we need the shuttle to build and sustain the International Space Station (ISS), thought by some to have been invented to keep the shuttle going. Absent the ISS, the shuttle goes away. But the ISS has its own troubles: the international funding plan is in a shambles, with no clear path to the science and commercial applications it was to enable, and with many doubts about it as a staging area for Mars missions. Why are we doing this? Because we want to explore space, even with a flawed platform. Political imperatives push to keep us in the game—and it is a jobs program.
Once we truly needed the shuttle—after a fateful decision in the early 1980s to kill unmanned launch programs and put all future national payloads in the shuttle, including military satellites. Following the Challenger accident, however, the Air Force was allowed to restart its expendable-launch-vehicle programs, so national security no longer serves as justification for the shuttle program.
Listen to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): "We are embarked on a sacred quest to the heavens, with astronauts as priests to lead us and shuttle the place of worship for this secular religion." NASA seems to have convinced itself that only with hype will the American people fund space exploration. The Agency mistrusts our political process and seriously underestimates public support for true space adventure. Were this all there was to the equation, the space shuttle could perhaps continue as welfare for space contractors and space communities, of no more harm than many other government programs. But other issues also bear.
First, the shuttle is a treacherous beast. Even space experts following the Columbia probe are alarmed at the failure modes and fault trees the investigation is disclosing. This is an extraordinarily complex design of dated technology kept flying by hundreds of man-weeks of work between launches, thousands of inspections, and the constant vigilance of operators making life-or-death decisions before and during every mission. We can have no doubt that a shuttle flown this often will fail again, and if two crashes are not its death knell, certainly three will be.
Equally troubling is the impact the shuttle is having on NASA's two other missions. NASA is the nation's primary research arm in aeronautics. While the shuttle may not be as important as NASA states, aviation is more important than NASA can make it because of the shuttle's cost. Even more basic to space interests, the shuttle's costs and limited capabilities constantly threaten NASA's funding of true space science. "The frogs in space program"—as a NASA buddy of mine calls shuttle science—is no substitute for the hardcore space science being underfunded in the losing competition with the shuttle for research money. Except for those tied to NASA through jobs or grants, no scientist and no scientific body prefers the shuttle to unmanned space exploration for scientific research. Simply put, the shuttle stifles good space research.
And strangely enough, the shuttle also limits manned space flight. Unless our best space aspiration is to forever circle our planet on short-duration missions in low-earth orbit, we need two things the shuttle cannot provide and indeed prevents: high goals and the means to obtain them. Thus far, NASA has failed at every attempt to build advanced manned-flight vehicles in parallel with shuttle operations. With the Columbia tragedy, this gets harder. Until NASA breaks out of its shuttle cul-de-sac, manned space flight is doomed to periodic failure on a permanent path of repetitious underachievement.
The space shuttle program has four possible pathways to the future. One is rebuilding the shuttle fleet, replacing Columbia as we did after the Challenger blew up. But we are 15 years further downstream from the shuttle's technology and its construction facility is no longer in business. Thus, building a new shuttle would be akin to creating a new automotive plant just to build one or two Edsels. In any case, cost kills this option.
The second option would be to terminate the shuttle program. But unless Columbia's problems have no solution, the billions of dollars already sunk in the ISS and political support of shuttle jobs would rule it out. Further complexity lies in the periodic need to assist the ISS to stay in orbit—the shuttle is the only good way to keep the space station from reentering the atmosphere. And, of course, the ISS is manned now and the shuttle is probably the best way to return the three humans currently circling the globe in worried orbit.
A third option is return to a full flight schedule with three shuttles and resumed construction of the ISS as soon as the Columbia investigation is completed and acted on. Already there is great pressure for this outcome. But is it wise? Or is this the time to reset our space agenda and aim higher than the shuttle? One prays we do not follow this easy path of highest risk and lowest reward.
Finally, we could make an extremely conservative return to shuttle operations, with minimum crews, no shuttle science, and with the minimum number of flights needed to keep the ISS in orbit (with or without manning, yet another risk tradeoff). Concurrently, full funding would be put behind a new space vehicle. Then, as soon as we have its more reliable, more capable replacement, the shuttle program would be terminated. This is the path of wisdom.
The critical decision now is not the shuttle. Rather it is what we do after the shuttle and how soon. We need new goals for our space ventures and new technology to achieve them. With new vision and new means, we can truly explore space. If that means ending current manned space operations and starting over with clearer purpose, that is just what we must do.
Is Manned Space Flight a Navy Issue?
The first human in space was an active-duty Navy pilot, Alan Sheppard (right). The first man to orbit earth was Marine Colonel John Glenn. The last man on the moon was Navy Captain Gene Cernan. In the era of the space shuttle, the first to fly that vehicle were Navy test pilots John Young and Bob Crippen. After the Challenger crash. the return-to-space flight in Discovery was commanded by Navy Commander Rick Hauck. And yes, Colombia's lost crew had three Navy officers aboard: Captain David Brown, and Commanders Laurel Clark and Willie McCool. The Sea Services have contributed at least a fourth of the members of the astronaut corps and joining that career path continues to be the goal of many of our best officers.