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A Space Age Controversy

  • By John M. Logsdon
  • Posted 10.14.08
  • NOVA

Conflicts over how long to fly the space shuttle and concerns about the future of the civilian space program will mean tough choices for the next president. At stake are both U.S. access to the International Space Station (ISS)—built at the cost of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars—and whether U.S. astronauts will return to the moon before 2020. The 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board, of which I was a member, stated that the U.S. should "replace the shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit."

This will mean relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport U.S. astronauts to the ISS for at least four years. The shuttle remains a very risky vehicle, and another accident could bring the U.S. program of human spaceflight to a grinding halt. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has described U.S. dependence on Russia for transportation to space as "unseemly." Indeed it is, but it is also a better, or perhaps a "less bad," choice than continuing to fly the shuttle past 2010.

The choice is made more complex by renewed Russian assertiveness, as vividly demonstrated by its August incursion into disputed Georgian territory, and the possibility of increasing tensions in other areas of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Should altering U.S. plans to depend on Soyuz be one of the ways in which the U.S. government shows its current disapproval of Russian actions? To the contrary, I believe that the U.S. should work to maintain the positive U.S.-Russian space relationship that has evolved over the last 15 years.

In my view it is far more important to get on with current plans, which call for a U.S.-led international effort to return to the moon and then prepare for voyages to Mars

Despite increasing pressure on NASA to fly the shuttle beyond its planned 2010 retirement date, I see no reason to change the Columbia Board judgment of five years ago—replace the shuttle as soon as possible. Although NASA has made many improvements in the shuttle since the Columbia accident, it is still a very risky vehicle. NASA estimates the probability of losing the crew on any single shuttle mission as one in 80. That means a one-in-eight chance of another disaster if 10 more shuttle flights between 2011 and 2015 are added. Losing another crew would very likely result in a multiyear delay in the U.S. human spaceflight program and undercut plans for resuming exploration beyond Earth orbit.

In addition, there is a need to have two of the three-person Soyuz at the ISS at all times to provide rescue capability for the six-person ISS crew. The shuttle can stay at the ISS for only a few weeks, and thus is not a rescue alternative.

Finally, the shuttle is a very expensive system to operate; this year's shuttle budget is close to $3 billion. If that amount of money continues to be spent on flying the shuttle, it will take even longer to develop a shuttle replacement and delay indefinitely U.S. plans to venture beyond low Earth orbit.

So which is the more prudent choice? In my view it is far more important to get on with current plans, which call for a U.S.-led international effort to return to the moon and then prepare for voyages to Mars, than it is to continue to fly a risky and costly transportation system.

The space shuttle is a remarkable technological achievement, but replacing it soon is the best path to the future. We should not let false pride or current international tensions get in the way of an intelligent approach to exploring the final frontier.

Former director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, John M. Logsdon is the Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. The opinions given in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of the Smithsonian, its officers, or employees.

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