Politics & Policy

Shuttle Dilemma

The wrong environment.

Wellington probably never said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but it could be said that the battle for Afghanistan was won on the launch pads of Canaveral and Vandenberg. The triumph of smart weapons owes an enormous amount to America’s ability to use reconnaissance, signal-gathering, positioning, and communications satellites as a routine part of military operations.

#ad#Although the shuttle fleet is no longer critical to the launch or maintenance of these military capabilities — the military, after Challenger, made sure that they would not be dependent on the shuttle for access to space — it remains the fact now, as it always has been, that the primary objective of America in space is to maintain critical defense capabilities.

While the military has worked hard to insure that it has access to space independent of NASA’s actions, it remains the underlying reality that space faring is a fungible art. A moribund civilian space sector means that the military would have to bear the brunt of the burden of assuring access to space. Conversely, a robust and active civilian space sector, whether NASA, commercial, or both, contributes enormously to lowering costs of access to space, and increasing the reliability of that access — concerns shared by military, civil government, and commercial spacefarers alike. Just as the Civil Reserve Air Fleet — the airliners that can be taken into military service in crisis — is an important contributor to national defense capabilities, so would a Civil Reserve Space Fleet, if the commercial sector were robust enough to be able to offer one.

Rather than a solution to the fulfillment of these needs, the shuttle has become an awkward legacy. It will never deliver the cheap access its proponents had promised, and after Columbia’s loss, lingering doubts will remain regarding the system’s reliability no matter what the result of the investigation may be. Yet it cannot be merely scrapped at this point, without scrapping a substantial range of activities, most notably the International Space Station.

At this point, decisions made about the future of the shuttle will have a substantial impact on both the immediate fate of the space station and other space projects, and more importantly, on the manner in which the next generation of space vehicles will be designed and built. Particularly in the latter point, America has a big stake.

It is absurd to speculate in advance of the facts, as some political grandstanders have done, that management structure and/or budget decisions made in the current administration, or its predecessor, may have contributed to Columbia’s loss. We don’t know what caused the loss. When we know, if we ever know, we may or may not know whether some set of procedures, or some proposed upgrade, might have prevented the loss. If we ever know that, we may (or may not) be able to point to a political decision regarding management or funding that could be said to have contributed to such a failure. At this point, to try to fix blame on either Bush or Clinton is a form of political ambulance chasing.

The shuttle’s real problems stem from the system that produced it and managed it from day one. In Lyndon Johnson’s eyes, NASA was primarily the Marshall Plan for the Confederacy. The shuttle was a political creature from the beginning, and the complex set of compromises and tradeoffs needed to bring it into being assured that it would forever be too expensive to fly often enough, or build enough of, to get the proper experience base to really understand reusable space flight. The total number of takeoff-landing cycles flown by the shuttle fleet even now is smaller than that typically flown by a new airliner prototype. In some ways, we still cannot say that anything that has happened with the shuttle fleet is statistically significant.

What is probably most important, once the investigations have been completed, it to assure that the management of the remaining shuttle fleet be placed in an organizational environment suitable for operational activities in a relatively high-risk environment. This would probably not be a commercial organization, but it is probably not NASA either, which has, fundamentally, dual roles in technology research and development and in science.

The idea of an independent government-owned entity may be the most appropriate destiny for the shuttle, and probably, with international participation, the international space station as well. This would provide an operation-oriented home for these projects while freeing NASA to return to its roots.

For the next generation of space vehicles, it is critical that we step away from the political traps that burdened the shuttle from the beginning. We should view the government users of space as what they really are — powerful customers whose needs make the market, not service providers in and of themselves. Transitioning from a “national space transportation system” to a national space-transportation sector, primarily private in provision of services, is the most likely step to put us on the road to a situation where there is no one (uniquely vulnerable) space launch vehicle, but a number of competing options, together offering government and commercial users a viable range of choices.

Government should think less about what the ideal piece of hardware should be, and more about how to help private companies mobilize the capital to develop multiple approaches. Smart buying practices are one such means; permitting capital from close allies like Britain have a role in financing development might be another.

This will not happen overnight. Administrator Sean O’Keefe has already taken the first steps in this direction, particularly in imposing a more rigorous understanding of costs than the agency has probably ever enjoyed. This is the first and critical step in transitioning NASA from being an overburdened operator to a smart customer. Other organizational reviews placed in motion since he took the helm have begun examining the kinds of reorganizations mentioned above. Columbia’s loss only heightens the realization of what is at stake in bringing our space-transportation approach into the 21st century.

— James C. Bennett, president of Internet Transactions Transnational, Inc., has been an adviser to the U.S government on space technology.

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