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Retirement of the STS

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I was sent this from Ed Fendell, one of the Apollo era mission controllers. I think it is worth posting and discussing.

Family Security Matter

March 7, 2011

Forfeiting U.S. Leadership in Space

William R. Hawkins

The space shuttle "Discovery" is scheduled to complete its 13 day supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 9. It is the 135th space shuttle mission since the "Columbia" first lifted off on April 12, 1981. There are only two missions left in the program, one in April for the "Endeavor" and one in June for "Atlantis." The shuttles will have flown for over 30 years, during which time it should have been expected that a replacement system would have been developed. But it has not been. Even the loss of "Challenger" in 1986 and "Columbia" in 2005 did not spark action. When the shuttles are retired this summer, there is nothing to replace them; indeed, there is not even anything close to being ready. Presidents George W. Bush (2003) and Barack Obama (2010) cancelled shuttle replacement programs. The great lead that the United States has enjoyed in space since the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969 has been thrown away due to a lack of imagination in Washington.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has put out its 2011 Strategic Plan. Its first goal is to "extend and sustain human activities across the solar system." As the lead civilization of the current era, it is America's duty to advance human achievement. Yet, there is very little in the NASA plan or budget to fulfill this noble goal. The NASA plan relies first and foremost on "expanding efforts to utilize the ISS as a National Laboratory for scientific, technological, diplomatic, and educational purposes and for supporting future objectives in human space exploration." But without the shuttle or a replacement space vehicle, the U.S. will be dependent on the Russians for access to the ISS.

Yes, the Russians, who lost both the Space Race and the Cold War in the last century, are now poised to control the ISS. The Russians, it should be remembered, were invited into the ISS because the U.S., even though it was the richest nation on the planet and the world's most advanced scientific state, was looking for other countries to put up money for the ISS to lighten its own "burden." It would be hard to find a better example of the old adage "penny wise, but pound foolish."

NASA notes the danger. Its strategic plan has as a goal "reducing the risk of relying exclusively on foreign crew transport capabilities." But the road to that goal will be a long one. The report talks about creating"architectures" that will then lead to a "roadmap for affordable and sustainable human space exploration." So after 30 years of relying on shuttles that were designed in the 1970s, NASA is back to square one.

NASA knows, "The core elements to a successful implementation are a space launch system and a multipurpose crew vehicle to serve as our national capability to conduct advanced missions beyond low Earth orbit. Developing this combined system will enable us to reach cislunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and other celestial bodies." Tragically, no one higher up in Washington, either at the White House or in Congress, has cared enough about the nation's future in space to do anything about funding such a project. As long as there are still satellites that can beam down episodes of "American Idol" to a nation of couch potatoes, who cares about achieving anything more?

NASA is one of the few government programs than actually deserves to be called an investment. Its 2012 request of $18 billion is only 0.4 percent of a $3.7 trillion Federal budget. The bailout money given to the AIG insurance company would have funded NASA for a decade. Yet, the technology the space program has generated for society has rewarded taxpayers many times over. And developing new generations of scientific breakthroughs will continue to be a major strategic goal of the program.

NASA's role extends beyond the agency's own work. It has served as a stimulus for education and industry. It's 2011 report states, "One of NASA's top strategic goals is to Inspire students to be our future scientists, engineers, explorers, and educators through interactions with NASA's people, missions, research, and facilities." At a time when the performance of American students in math and science has fallen behind that of most of the world, there needs to be a new push to stimulate the public imagination and to provide rewarding careers for a new generation of innovative thinkers. But with NASA doing less in space, from where is the inspiration to come? Designing more video games?

The NASA report raises concerns about how to keep even its current high-skilled workforce employed, noting. "The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 is ushering in a tran­sition period for the Nation's human space flight workforce." New programs, such as "development of a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule to carry explorers beyond Earth's orbit, including a mission to an asteroid next decade" are supposed to provide some jobs, but not enough. Shifting work to "green technology" and the study of "global warming" will not lead to new adventures in manned space exploration

Meanwhile, China is positioning itself to lead humankind' further into space. The state news agency Xinhua reported Friday, "The world's largest design, production and testing base for rockets is being built in Tianjin" as part of China's expanding space program. Twenty of the 22 plants have been completed, and some of are ready for operation. The base is designed to meet China's growing demand for space technology for the next thirty years. By integrating the industrial chain, the base will be able to produce the whole spectrum of rockets for China's lunar missions, its own space station and other ambitious projects according to Liang Xiaohong, deputy head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

China is still behind the United States, having only sent its first multi-man orbital mission aloft in 2008, but it has big ideas. Beijing plans 20 space missions this year, and wants to land an unmanned vehicle on the Moon in 2013. China sent a spacecraft to orbit the Moon last October.

The stirring vision of giant space stations, commercial shuttle flights and extensive moon bases given to the public in the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a sad testimony to three decades of lost American opportunities. I have seen this once great American spirit of adventure reborn in China. I have been amazed (and alarmed) by displays of Chinese plans to build bases on the Moon, then move farther into the solar system. I grew up in a confident America animated by futuristic thinking, but that drive has faded. Beijing is now the home of energy and ambition.

What happens in space is not divorced from what happens on Earth. Though clearly helpful to military space projects, NASA is charted as a civilian organization in line with idealist notions about the heavens being a clean slate free of power politics. There are no such illusions in China. Beijing's manned-space program is placed under the General Armament Department within the Ministry of Defense. The Long March rockets used for space launches are similar in design to China's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. More important, is the spirit demonstrated in the space effort. History has not been kind to nations that stagnate in the face of a rising competitor. The desire to succeed is the most important element in any strategy.

The NASA strategic plan claims, "Humanity's interest in the heavens has been universal and enduring. Humans are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further. NASA is tasked with developing the capabilities that will support our country's long-term human space flight and exploration efforts." But where is the higher national leadership with the vision to back these efforts? The frontier spirit that built America has waned. Both political parties are too busy looking at the mud around their feet to look up at the sky.

So much for the "giant leap for mankind" so bravely stated over 40 years ago. But what can be expected in a country where Buzz Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the Moon, ends up on "Dancing with the Stars" performing for an audience most of whom had never heard of him. Nothing could better portray the decline of American civilization.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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