Home > Space Exploration > NASA’s Dirty Little Secret: No Access to Space, 2011-2015

NASA’s Dirty Little Secret: No Access to Space, 2011-2015

22-Oct-07 12:26 am EDT Leave a comment Go to comments
Artist’s depiction of the Ares I and Aries V rockets.
       — Source: NASA.

It isn’t about any jealous, diaper-sporting astronauts tangled up in a crazy love triangle.  NASA’s real dirty secret is the seldom-cited fact that with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, NASA, for the second time in its history, will loose the ability to send humans into space.  And this time, it might well be for a lot longer than people think.

Currently, the plan, as it’s disclosed to the media, says the Shuttle’s replacement – the Ares I booster – will undergo test flights starting in April 2009 with a presumed ready-to-launch date of early 2015.  This date is almost a full year later than the originally-planned date of 2014 and follows NASA’s administrator, Michael Griffin, took up his post back in 2005 calling a 4-5 year gap in America’s manned access to space "unacceptable".  And yet, it seems very clear that NASA will be relying on one of its chief rivals in space exploration, Russia, for access to the International Space Station (ISS) during this period if plans remain as they are.

To find out why this is happening, one need look no further than the U.S. congress which has been notorious for cutting the agency’s budgets on an annual basis, making it difficult to make plans or stick to them according to any kind of timeline.  Even more frustrating for fans of manned space exploration is more recent news suggesting a further delay to 2015 or later for Ares to finally lift off.

Having already lost two Shuttles to accidents over the spacecraft’s lifetime, there’s simply no chance of extending the lifetime of the orbiters to keep NASA space-bourne.  But could Griffin realize his dream of accelerating the Ares program to at least keep NASA in the game of manned exploration?  This past month, the U.S. Senate voted to increase NASA’s budget by $1 billion amidst the threat of a presidential veto, an apparent contradiction of President Bush’s earlier speeches about "challenging" NASA to reach for Mars as its next goal (apparently without any extra money).  Perhaps even more confusing was the reaction from Griffin’s office, whose spokesperson released a statement saying discussion of funding above the money already budgeted was "inappropriate".  The careful wording suggested that Griffin may be playing a delicate political game of not trying to sound critical of the President while obviously hoping for much needed additional funding.  The Senate can override the President’s veto in this case, and it’s promising to do so – suggesting more money could be on the way by mid-next year.  And, obviously, no comment from NASA on specifically what this money would do to timetable for either Ares or the Shuttle’s retirement.

Regardless of whether or not there’s any flexibility in the timetable, there’s still the question as to whether changes in budgets or timelines of other NASA projects is practical, or whether such changes could threaten or further delay other critical objectives for NASA over the long term.  The design of the Ares and Orion vehicles aren’t just to simply replace the Shuttle, but to give NASA the capability to have modularity and capability to ultimately land missions to the moon and Mars.  Without nice paved airports on the Martian surface, a Shuttle-like vehicle wouldn’t be very practical and using an Apollo-like approach for missions that will carry people to other planets in the solar system certainly makes sense.  Yet in order to keep those goals in focus, certain projects that contribute to the goal of manned exploration to other planets in the solar system are also key and their delay in favour of getting a vehicle back into orbit could amount to saving a few months early at the expense of having a mission to Mars delayed for months or even years again later.  This begs the question; should NASA worry about not having a manned spacecraft capability for a few years?

Griffin, speaking back in 2005, said he thought that when NASA experienced the same kind of gap in capability at the end of the Apollo missions, it suffered greatly and allowed its competitors gain valuable ground in the space race.

"The six-year gap between the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission and the 1981 debut of the shuttle damaged both the U.S. space program and the nation…I don’t want to do it again.”

— Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, NASA Chief Pushes for Shuttle’s Replacement, Space.com, May 13, 2005.

Time will tell if Griffin can deliver what he wants for his agency and for his astronauts who may ye find themselves in the unemployment office along with a good deal of other NASA support staff struggling to transition from Shuttle technology to the older (and newer) Apollo-era technology.  Five years is a long time to be out of the manned space exploration business and, without political will, that’s what’s in store for NASA and the people it ultimately serves.  Most surprising of all is that this remains NASA’s dirty little secret – and it’s one that needs to get more press if it’s to be avoided.  But with the agency timid about ruffling the feathers of the President by speaking out on the subject of inadequate funding and a volatile President who talks the talk about space exploration, but neither delivers cash nor tolerates the slightest complaint from civil servants – it all adds up to a situation where the public might not become aware of the fall of the space agency until the President has left office.

Categories: Space Exploration
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