The Columbia catastrophe has understandably inspired a rededication to manned space flight, lest those who perished so tragically and heroically should have died in vain. John Glenn — who so memorably rode Friendship 7 into orbit 41 years ago this month — has called for continuing shuttle flights. The history of the space program suggests, however, that today’s astronauts are not getting what Glenn got in 1962: America’s technological best.
About 40 of my fellow high-school students and I crowded into a small dormitory room to watch Friendship 7’s morning lift-off. Callow we were, but we grasped the enormous risk John Glenn was taking, sitting atop a huge Roman candle. Yet we were comforted, knowing that the machinery on the Cape Canaveral launch pad was the very best America could give its intrepid space explorers. As was the Apollo/Saturn monster rocket that later sent men to the moon.
Would that were the case with Columbia. The doomed ship was a 1970s concoction. A budget-constrained space agency grabbed off-the-shelf technology in an effort to rapidly build an economical, reusable space vehicle to dock with a space station that ultimately was not funded. With its primary mission mooted, and lacking real-world economics and commercial demand, NASA discovered mission creep. Manned flights were chosen to run many experiments that could be conducted more cheaply and safely by unmanned craft.
Extreme risk is, of course, endemic to all experimental flight. The aviators who shattered Mach-number barriers ran great risks, but there was no other way to test super-fast powered flight. From the supersonic to the hypersonic, pilots with “the right stuff” gambled, betting on the best technology available.
This need not mean automatic gold-plating. Remotely piloted drones like the Predator and Global Hawk perform certain military missions more cheaply and effectively than manned planes can, sparing pilots. If a Predator suffices, there is no need to send a B-2. Unmanned missions serve the same humane purpose.
That NASA’s flight engineers are doing the best they can to manage the clunky technology of the shuttle is not in doubt. That their commitment goes beyond the professional — to a deep, familial affection for the astronauts — is evident to anyone seeing Mission Control press briefings. Ingeniously fixing problems as they surface, scavenging on ebay for spare parts no longer made — their improvisational wizardry in keeping the shuttle aloft is a wonder to behold. They are doing far more than can be expected with the tools at hand. But those tools are not good enough, and now, in the aftermath of disaster, it is high time to retrench.
Challenger was lost on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the shuttle program, too soon to chart a new course. An interim fix to keep the space program alive was defensible, given Cold War rivalry. But advances in materials science and information processing now make it possible to build space vehicles vastly more reliable, efficient, and productive than the shuttle. The tyranny of the past simply won’t do.
What then, should be done?
In serving our humane values, all missions that can be accomplished as well or better by unmanned craft should be carried out without crew.
Serving our practical bent, existing shuttles should be restricted to missions of sufficient urgency to justify exposing astronauts to a craft with a (thus-far) empirically established 2 percent risk of catastrophic failure.
Serving operating efficiency, NASA should develop within a decade a flyable manned orbital vehicle incorporating 21st-century technology, optimized for civilian/military missions uniquely requiring manned flight.
Serving our adventurous heritage, NASA should accelerate technological research to develop an advanced propulsion system for a mission to reach Mars within two decades — by the 50th anniversary of the last moon landing.
And what about competing budgetary priorities, such as social programs? NASA’s FY 2004 budget allocation is $15.5 billion out of $2.23 trillion, seven-tenths of one percent; the shuttle alone will cost $3.9 billion. By comparison, 63 percent of the budget — 90 times as much as NASA spends — goes to human resources (Social Security, education, health, income security, veterans). And entitlement spending will rise steeply as boomers retire, so the gap will surely widen.
Still, is a new space agenda affordable? Costs will vary according to specific proposals, but a country whose gross domestic product already exceeds $10.5 trillion will, barring mega-death catastrophe, generate some $300 trillion in GDP over the next 20 years, at an average of 3 percent annual growth. Today’s 17 percent federal share of GDP would yield some $50 trillion over the same span; boosting NASA’s budget share to 1 percent would leave $500 billion for space. With such vast wealth, how can we not afford to make a return to true space exploration? Wouldn’t the spectacle of a Mars liftoff in high-definition video lift the spirits of the next generation of American youth, the way Friendship 7 lifted the hopes and dreams of New Frontier America?
Restarting the remaining shuttles is a natural reflex, but doing so will only place the future of America’s space program in receivership to bureaucratic inertia. Had John Glenn been left to face his 1962 launch with 30-year-old rocket technology, he might easily have risen higher by riding an elevator to the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. America can — and should — do much better by its space heroes.
The western frontier that invited us to the Pacific closed in 1890. The New Frontier that drove us to the moon closed in 1972. The High Frontier beckons America not to budget-driven and often prosaic science, but to reach for the stars, as was done with the magical Hubble Space Telescope. Instead we continue to languish in Earth-orbit at altitudes first achieved nearly half a century ago. The High Frontier summons us to the heavens beyond — to the planets. For we, too, are wanderers.
— John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.