GWEN IFILL: As the investigation continues, what are the short- and long-term questions that need to be asked after Saturday's crash? For at least some of the answers, we turn to Donna Shirley, former manager for Mars Exploration at NASA. She now teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Oklahoma. John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; and Gregg Easterbrook, who writes on science as a senior editor for the New Republic Magazine.
Mr. Logsdon, let's talk about the implications, long and short-term from this incident this weekend. What are they?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, first we have to find out what caused this accident, fix it, understand how long the shuttle is going to be grounded and it's impact on the space station program, and then do some rescheduling. We can't continue the assembly of the space station without the shuttle. Only it can carry the large pieces up. So over the next one, two, three years, there's going to be a lot of reshuffling in what was planned prior to Saturday morning.
GWEN IFILL: Just saying you have to get to the bottom of it, we just heard that's a pretty tall order?
JOHN LOGSDON: Yes. But yesterday NASA Administrator O'Keefe, I think he was a bit optimistic said if everything works well, maybe the shuttle could be flying within five months. Who knows, because we're at the early stages in the investigation, whether that's realistic. I don't think the shuttle is going to be down the over two and a half years that happened after "Challenger", that would really put the whole program in jeopardy.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Shirley, how do you see the implications?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, I think what John said is absolutely right, that we have to think about the bigger picture of how the space station is going to be kept up there, I mean, if the shuttle does nothing more than just shuttle crew back and forth to keep the station maintained and keep it on orbit, that's a valuable function, and right now the only way we have to get to the station is either with the shuttle or with the Russian Soyuz. And the Russian space program is not real healthy. So the shuttle is kind of the only game in town for right now.
GWEN IFILL: So the shuttle has to survive in order for the space station to survive, which has to survive in order for the shuttle to survive?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, we could buy Soyuzes from the Russians, they don't have enough money, they say, to keep up their end of keeping flying the Soyuzes up there. But we could put money into that and we could deliver crew, and we're already delivering supplies with progress vehicles, which are unmanned vehicles that go up to the shuttle with supplies. So there is, there are ways to keep the station going, but it will depend a lot on what the cause of the accident was and how vulnerable the rest of the fleet is to that sort of failure.
GWEN IFILL: Gregg Easterbrook you wrote a column in Time Magazine basically saying the shuttle program should be stopped.
GREGG EASTERBROOK: Yes, it should stop now, Gwen. The way to remember these seven valiant men and women is to stop a program that we have seen explode in front of our eyes now twice. The space shuttle has had two fatal flying accidents, which is more in-flight accidents than all other space vehicles of the world combined, United States and Russia, including the space vehicles of the 1960s.
In addition to its inherent danger, which is now obvious before our eyes, the space shuttle has made space excess so expensive that we only travel to space now four or five times a year. The whole reason the space shuttle program was justified in the first place was to cut the cost of access to space. The space shuttle has turned out to be the most expensive space vehicle ever flown, costing at least $500 million per flight, perhaps more depending on how do you the calculation.
What we need to do now is end the program that explodes in front of our eyes and replace it, use the money, space flight is still very important, use the money to research a new more reliable and lower cost system. Once we have that, then grand human ambitions in space might become possible.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Logsdon, we're weighing the science versus the risk and the cost of, in human terms, of this program. Mr. Easterbrook says it's not worth the cost. What do you say?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, I think it goes beyond the scientific results to the kind of intangible benefits that come from having humans in space. The way we are reacting to this tragedy suggests how deeply a part of our culture human space flight has become. What Gregg is suggesting, stopping shuttle, which means stopping station and starting over, really means for the U.S. a ten-year hiatus in human space flight. I'm not sure that the American public is interested in doing that, willing to do it, and I don't think it's in the country's interest.
GWEN IFILL: Is it in the country's interest, Ms. Shirley?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, no, I don't think so. In fact, if I were the administrator and had total power, what I would do would be to pull one of the shuttles each year or eighteen months or something off of the line, fly the other two as just as necessary to keep the station going, and completely from the ground up refurbish one shuttle at a time.
The way the military refurbishes its military aircraft every five years, they take it right down to the nuts and bolts and the skin come off, and it's completely upgraded and refurbished. I think if you did one shuttle say for twelve months or eighteen months, the other two supply the station, then you put that one back into service, pull another one out and so on, within say three, four years, you'd have the shuttle fleet that would be as safe and reliable as you could make it.
In the meantime, by only having two flights a year you save money, which you can use to start looking at more modern vehicles for serving the needs of the human space program.
GWEN IFILL: I just want to follow up with you on that. You just talked about -- part of the complaint about the space shuttle program in particular is that the number of employees has shrunk, that the budget has stayed flat for the last several years. Is there any reason to believe that after an incident like this there would be any appetite to put more money into a shuttle program or into upgrading the shuttle program to a new generation?
DONNA SHIRLEY: Well, I think if there was a well thought out strategy, and I don't think we've had a well thought out strategy, Mr. Easterbrook is absolutely right that the shuttle was advertised to be low cost, it's never been low cost, it wasn't designed to be low cost, it just wasn't true, so we need a much more cost effective system, but I don't think we can just stop everything, because I think for one thing we'd lose the station, which is way too big an investment, and the president has already, I believe, added $500 million to the NASA budget.
I think if we only flew twice a year by Gregg's calculation we'd save a billion dollars, and we could use the rest of the funds to upgrade the shuttles and then to make a start on a new vehicle.
But I think the important thing is that we don't want to replace the shuttle. The shuttle tried to be all things to all people. What we want is the right set of vehicles to do the job. So we need one vehicle to work for the space station, and I personally think that it is time to really start incentivizing private enterprise to fill in gaps in space transportation that is currently just a monopoly of a few big companies.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Easterbrook whether that would be a middle ground that would be more politically acceptable, therefore doable, and also would reserve the incredible investment which has been made in the international space station?
GREGG EASTERBROOK: Well, since all these decisions are political, we may ultimately have some political median, such as the one that Donna suggests. But I would say suppose, John, we did have to stop human exploration of space for ten years. Space would still be there when we got back. There is no urgent objective in space today. In fact the biggest problem with the space station is trying to explain to anyone what it's supposed to accomplish, other than being a destination for the space shuttle.
What the program needs more than anything else is to be rationalized, to be put on solid financial footing, with a new system that's not 30 years old like the space shuttle, a good idea perhaps when it was conceived, but conceived 30 years ago -- that costs less and is more reliable. Once we have a reliable and affordable means to space, then we can have the kind of objectives the public would be excited about, a return to the Moon, human trips to Mars. Today, bound to the space shuttle, unreliable, deadly and very expensive, our choices in space are generally not rational - ones that are driven by budget politics.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Logsdon, why human beings in space, there have been 113 missions including this last one — two catastrophes — 14 lives lost, why humans in space when so much of this can be done, especially trucking equipment to the space station, can be accomplished in an unmanned vehicle?
JOHN LOGSDON: Well, that's not quite true. We don't have anything powerful enough to carry the pieces of station up, other than the shuttle. There are expendable vehicles coming on line that could do that in the future, but not yet. Just to the point of information, I know your next segment is about the budget, the budget that was released today has $379 million proposed for shuttle upgrades, $1.7 billion over the next five years. So this administration has made a judgment to invest in making the shuttle better.
Why humans? Run the opposite scenario. And I think each of us should be going through this debate now, it should be a national debate of the value of humans both intangible and tangible, compared to the cost, compared to the risk. It may be that the country after thinking that through agrees with Gregg Easterbrook, that it's time to take a pause and do it differently. I don't think so, but we really need to come to grips with that question.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Shirley, do you sense that the American public still is as in love with the notion of a space program and the shuttle in particular as it seemed like we were so many years ago?
DONNA SHIRLEY: I think, no, the public certainly is not as hyper aware, we're not in a Cold War at the moment. But, for instance, if China were to launch an astronaut to the moon, probably the public interest would get galvanized again.
I don't think it's practical to shut down something, because if you shut down something you destroy the entire infrastructure, and that infrastructure has been built up with many, many dollars and many, many years and many, many people, and over ten years it would be completely gone. And to start from scratch at that point I think would be pretty well impossible.
I believe that people go into space not just because it's in the culture, because it's actually wired into our DNA to explore, and I think you'd cut something out of the human experience. And frankly if we don't do it, the Chinese will do it, the Indians will do it, somebody will do it, it's not just us. So I think it's well worth looking, I think the national debate needs to be held the way John says. I think the issues that Gregg brings up need to be debated.
And I also think that the thing that's continually overlooked is the possible contribution of the private sector. If you, for instance, gave the struggling fledgling private aerospace industry the same deal that you did with the early aviation industry, like mail contracts, for air mail contracts, for example, or how you subsidize the early Internet, that there could exist within a few years a viable private industry and you could do the experiment, you build a shuttle, a replacement to do the minimal things that the government must do and see what you can do with private enterprise on the rest of it.
GWEN IFILL: Does private enterprise work for you as an option, Mr. Easterbrook?
GREGG EASTERBROOK: Well, it would certainly help. There are several companies who attempted to build private rockets in the 1990s and the early attempts were not successful. But the capital costs are large. I have no doubt given the aviation history in the 1920s people would have said that United Airlines and FedEx would always be prohibitively expensive and they turned out not to be. Some day there will be private access to space and some day our far descendants are certain to live on other worlds. This is important. But the key thing is there's no hurry and we're not going to get there until our launch systems are affordable and rational, and the shuttle is neither.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, thank you all very much.