The Looming Gap in Human Spaceflight

A Review of NASA’s Abandonment of Human Spaceflight


by Daniel Anthony Crew (April 23, 2008)

America abandoned the moon in 1972, halting our nation’s human space exploration effort in mid-stride, even though congress fully funded, and NASA completed the development of the flight hardware necessary to conduct one more trip to our only natural satellite. Our national political will to continue exploring beyond the blue world of Earth drifted from our collective conscience as the Cold War began to crowd out all other priorities.

The Shuttle Program did not begin test flights until a full four years after the Apollo Program ended, a gap that caused many of NASA’s finest minds to seek careers elsewhere, bleeding the imagination from research and development efforts that were spawned and accelerating during this era. R&D that has affected virtually every product we use today. The loss of our will to explore beyond low earth orbit in the 80’s and 90’s, and the dispersion of our technically brilliant Apollo space team, is one major cause of a decline noted in the US technological competitive edge over the last 40 years.

Our nation faces another gap in human spaceflight. The Shuttle Program will end in 2010, culminating a program phase-out that started in 2007 – shedding vital commercial vendors, contractor and support tiers along the way. Not to mention its human capital (to borrow a NASA term – for its people). The requirements to develop hardware for the new Constellation Program’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I launcher started this year – with estimates of 2014-2017 before the US can deploy its own Astronauts, use Mission Control and training assets in Houston, or roll-out a Constellation Program space vehicle from the launch facilities in Florida. Another hiatus in U.S. human access to space.

Even if the new Administration and Congress attempted to reverse the course of the Shuttle’s demise, say in the first quarter of 2009, too much of the program support structure could not be reinvigorated without pouring billions back into qualifying new vendors and hardware. A very unlikely event since every billion spent on Shuttle is a billion reduced from the startup budget of the new Constellation Program. In simple terms, NASA is currently not funded well enough to be able to afford the two programs simultaneously and, as a consequence, will face the second gap in its short history.

NASA’s entire budget is less than one cent of every federal tax dollar collected – roughly 15 billion dollars per year. Of that amount, 5 billion dollars per year is used for the Shuttle Program. To fund the Constellation Program an equal amount of Shuttle dollars must ramp down when Constellation dollars ramp up. It is a zero sum game of 5 billion discretionary dollars per year. Approximately the same amount that President Bush has committed – 30 billion tax dollars – to fight global HIV/AIDS (through PEPFAR) during the timeframe that America’s human space program will be grounded.

A relatively small contingent of scientists and engineers (compared to the current Shuttle workforce) will develop the Orion crew vehicle and Ares I launch vehicle during the four to six-year gap, a time during which American astronauts will fly to the space station totally dependent upon Russia, Japan and Europe. In essence, we are sending our human space program offshore – relying on other nations to maintain a minimal presence in space – following the lay-off of an estimated 5,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians in California, Texas, Alabama and Florida. A workforce that is a powerful technical source for US commercial products and academic initiatives and spinoffs. Arguably one of the few governmental entities that most Americans agree provides tangible results and clear benefits to society.

Leaders of America’s top high-tech and aerospace companies signed a joint challenge to Congress, imploring the return of U.S. space access to NASA and its contractor workforce, not those of foreign lands. This is especially important considering the very nations we must rely on during a program gap are clearly challenging US leadership in space, and, in the case of China, access to space. It is important, if not vital for long-term U.S. strategic interests, that our own political leaders heed the cadre of top American aerospace leaders to adequately appropriate discretionary spending at a level that will eliminate the possibility of a human spaceflight program to program gap.

The combined voice of American voters can make the difference to insure our most important U.S. space program assets – scientists, engineers and technicians – do not gravitate away from NASA by necessity, diluting technical potential for decades. To avoid this pitfall we must saturate Congress and the Administration with a demand to restore US access to space to the US space program and its workforce.

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