On the ninth anniversary of the loss of the Columbia space shuttle, I have some thoughts on what’s happened since, over at PJMedia:
The problem was that after the ISS was complete, without the Shuttle, the U.S. would have no capability to reach it, and there would be a “gap” in capability until some sort of replacement was developed. At the time of the announcement, the “Crew Exploration Vehicle” (CEV) was the proposed means, but it wasn’t expected to be ready until 2014, resulting in a “gap” of at least three years, and probably longer. When Mike Griffin replaced Sean O’Keefe in 2005, he rolled out a concept called Constellation, which included the CEV, renamed at that time Orion. It also included a new rocket for it, that had not been anticipated in the original Bush plan, called Ares I, despite the fact that existing rockets, such as the Atlas V or Delta IV, could have done the job. Griffin even originally claimed that his plan would reduce the gap, being ready by 2011.
Unfortunately, the design chosen was flawed, and ran into technical difficulties immediately, increasing its costs and stretching its schedule. Because there had not originally been plans for a new launcher, there wasn’t sufficient budget to support it, and other budgets, in science and technology, and the hardware actually needed to get back to the moon, were raided to feed the rocket disaster. The schedule was slipping more than a year per year, and by 2009, when the Augustine Committee was convened to evaluate the situation, it moved rightward to 2017, with only a low probability of hitting that operational date.
Meanwhile, we are totally dependent on the Russians for both transportation to and from the ISS, and for emergency lifeboat services, for which (unsurprisingly) they have been increasing the cost since the Shuttle was belatedly retired last summer, and shipping taxpayer funds overseas to them. Worse, each time we give them a new contract, we have to waive the Iran North-Korea Syria Non-Proliferation Act which prohibits trade with countries who aid those nations in the development of missiles and nukes, because Russia continues to help Iran with both.
Worse yet, while they have been flying for decades, their space systems have proven unreliable just at the point at which we have attained such total dependence. Last summer and fall, they had multiple launch failures, and then a failed Mars probe in November, which recently entered the atmosphere with a load of toxic propellants, but fortunately seems to have fallen into the ocean. And now, they’ve delayed their next ISS flight because they have leaks in the pressurized Soyuz crew module.
And Congress continues to underfund the only solution that can provide us with multiple competitive companies, and eliminate our reliance on thee Russians — Commercial Crew — while demanding that NASA waste billions on an unneeded giant rocket with no funded mission that will probably never fly, but provides jobs in the right states and districts. Next year, it will be a decade, and the low-information level of the space-policy debate of the last few days in Florida would indicate that it’s unlikely to get better any time soon.