I have been very heartened by the considerable number and thoughtful nature of the comments received to my blog here. It is really good to know that so many people care so much about space exploration and are willing to think hard and share their ideas with all of us here on what I truly believe is a worthy and noble endeavor.
To all those folks who love the shuttle as I do and have written in to say keep flying the old bird: my heart is with you but my mind says otherwise. If I had a magic wand I would wish to keep flying an upgraded, safer shuttle at the same time we build the moon rocket, and hand out multiple incentives to private industry to develop a robust, economical, and efficient space transportation system. But I don’t have that magic wand and don’t know anybody that does. (I also have a personal plan to put my big lottery prize to work; but I am not counting on winning as a realistic strategy).
As I said earlier, almost anything is possible giving enough money and time. We had a really good example of that over the weekend as we all watched Hurricane Gustav come ashore near New Orleans. Watching those waves splashing over the levee walls was terrifying. Today we know that the levees protecting New Orleans are good for a category 2 hurricane that comes ashore 50 miles west of there. Is that good enough? Not really. Technically it is possible to devise and implement a defense that would keep New Orleans safe agains a category 5 hurricane — the worst we can imagine. The question is how much will it cost, how long will it take, and will the country commit the resources to do it? That’s all. So vote on your choice: (a) leave it alone and keep our fingers crossed, (b) raise taxes to pay for improved levees, (c) take the money from some other government spending and send it to New Orleans instead. That’s about all the choices you get. Simple, really.
Space exploration is like that. There are a lot of competing ideas out there. The leadership of our country has given us a mandate and provided a certain amount of money to get the job done. We could wish for more resources, more money, but where will that come from. See above!
If you are concerned about our Russian friends and don’t want to rely on the Soyuz, sorry. Even if we kept flying the shuttle for an extended period, we would still have to rely on the Soyuz as a lifeboat. The shuttle does not have the capability to remain at the station for extended periods of time and we really must have a lifeboat. Wish we had finished the Crew Rescue Vehicle (aka X-38) but the national leadership cancelled that program for budgetary reasons and almost 10 years ago now we knew that we would rely on the Soyuz for the lifetime of the station. And don’t even think about operating the station without all our international partners. We are all in this together. In fact, it is a source of pride and wonder that International Space Station is the largest cooperative program ever undertaken by a large group of international partners. Wish we could take the lessons learned at ISS on how to work together and get them to apply to other areas!
I am a big fan of all the folks working on commercial, private enterprize solutions to space travel. The Falcon team especially has earned my respect for their accomplishments. Those accomplishments have come at a high cost both in financially and in the hours of hard work and stress that team has put in place. I really hope that their next launch is a total success and the Falcon 9 and the proposed Dragon spacecraft come to fruition. But I have had a long experience of various proposed spacecraft that never made it, for all too many reasons. The bottom line: somebody somewhere somehow needs to perfect a reliable, economical, reasonably safe way to get people to low earth orbit, where, as Robert Heinlein famously wrote, “in low earth orbit you are half way to anywhere in the universe”. The Orion and Aries 1 is NASA’s plan, there needs to be others, and there are others in the works. Just money and time.
If we do decide to fly the shuttle longer — and hopefully that comes with the monetary resources so that our march back to the moon is not delayed — my biggest regret will be the loss of all the safety upgrades we had for the shuttle. In January 2004 we had a number of projects underway to make the shuttle safer. When the decision came down to retire the shuttle by 2010, we evaluated all those changes and anything that could not be developed, proven, and implemented in the fleet by 2010 was terminated. It just didn’t make sense to spend the tax payer’s money on something that would not fly. My personal favorite was channel wall nozzles for the space shuttle main engines. If you haven’t seen a slow motion video of those engines starting up you probably sleep better at night. 1060 thin tubes are braze welded together to form the nozzle and it flexes and bends during engine startup. If the nozzle comes apart, well . . . it would be a bad day. Channel wall nozzles are much more robust; we had the plan in place to implement them in the fleet by 2011, but not any more. And if you turn that project back on today, it will be five years later . . .
So I am frankly ambivalent about the retirement of the shuttle. After working on it for 30 years, I love that old bird and admire its accomplishments and capabilities. But I also know too well its weaknesses and flaws. And I came to work at NASA to explore the solar system, not just exploit low earth orbit. So its time to go on from here.
But, as always, we can talk about.
I do have one final personal note. In one of the comments, somebody said I was being “disingenuous”. Thats a big word but one of the things it means is that I lied. Actually it means to make a false or hypocritical statement. Now folks, I take extreme umbrage (another big word) at that. I can be wrong – and I frequently am. And my logic may not be sound – guilty on numerous occasions. And I cannot express my thoughts as coherently as I wish. But I am not into “spin” and the one thing I will not do is lie to you. Here or anywhere. So please don’t call me “disingenuous”.