Our nation’s looming self-imposed exile from space.
The Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off this week in one of the final three missions of the Shuttle program. Once the Shuttles are mothballed and shipped off to the museums, the United States will have no way of delivering its own into space, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, U.S. astronauts will fly on Russian rockets, while NASA tries to leverage commercial space assets. Most Americans either don’t care or don’t know about the nation’s looming self-imposed exile from space. That will change as Russia, China and others surge ahead in space—and America lowers its sights.
To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this predicament. For decades, policymakers of both parties and the public at large shrugged at the manmade miracle of space flight, failed to appreciate the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life, and failed to invest in or plan for post-Shuttle space capabilities. For example, when the Ares I-X rocket was tested in October 2009, it marked the first new crew-capable spacecraft unveiled by NASA in 30 years.
Washington’s benign neglect of NASA and space began to change in 2004, when President George W. Bush announced a plan to use the best of the Shuttle and Apollo programs in developing a new system—known as Constellation—to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit and deep into space. The plan called for retiring the remaining Space Shuttles—Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis—in order to make way for Constellation’s Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I launch vehicle. By shutting down the Shuttle program, NASA would be able to divert precious economic, human and material resources to the Constellation program.
As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell noted in an open letter last year, “Constellation was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.” But President Barack Obama, stubbornly intent on being the anti-Bush, canceled Constellation, choosing instead to use NASA resources to purchase more Russian-outsourced missions and to encourage the development of commercial rockets.
These alternatives are simply not worthy of the United States, the greatest space-faring nation in history. As former NASA administrator Michael Griffin noted in 2008, “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that.”
What few Americans realize is that Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station after the Columbia disaster in 2003. Of course, collaborating with Russia by choice is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets out of necessity.
This is very troublesome, especially given Russia’s open hostility to U.S. interests and policies. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer, blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites. What’s to stop the Kremlin from demanding that, in exchange for a trip into space, the U.S. deactivate missile defense assets in Central Europe or the Med, look the other way as the Russian army finishes what it started in Georgia, or accede to Russian control over some new energy pipeline.
Just as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. Earlier this month, Russia launched an unmanned spacecraft, lost it for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed failure of a satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called “a basic fuel miscalculation that made the craft too heavy to reach its required height.”
And we’re going to entrust our astronauts and space hardware to these guys?
As to private-sector alternatives, Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell note that “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty.” Indeed, there are limitations to what private firms can do: One of NASA’s main private-sector partners is SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to carry 22,000 pounds into space. By contrast, the Shuttle can deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. Moreover, SpaceX rockets have failed several times since 2006.
In short, the alternatives leave much to be desired.
There was always going to be a gap between the end of the Shuttle program and beginning of the Constellation program, but at least under the Bush plan the gap had a defined endpoint, somewhere around 2014-15. “To be without carriage to low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” as the astronaut trio puts it, “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature” and sends America on “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”
Indeed, we already live in an era when America is perceived as in decline. In a realm beyond yet related to national security, surrendering the ability to carry astronauts into space promises to be another blow to America’s prestige. We’ve been here before. Almost six years elapsed between the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and America’s next manned space mission, the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia. That period ominously coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World War II power.
To be sure, the Pentagon will continue to be active in space after the Shuttle is retired. In fact, it is estimated that space programs related to national security receive two times the funding NASA receives. Some of those resources are supporting the secret X-37B space plane, an unmanned vehicle which enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for up to 270 days, and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. An X-37 returned from a secret mission in late 2010.
But it’s difficult to imagine that the U.S. will be able to maintain its space edge relying on an experimental space plane, under-strength commercial rockets and an undependable Russia. In this regard, it pays to recall that many Shuttle missions were strictly military missions, some of them highly classified.
Worse, countries like China will not stand still while America regroups.
According to the Defense Department, “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries.” And it’s developing what the Pentagon calls “counter-space programs” rapidly. In 2007, Beijing tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit. According to the Pentagon, Beijing is “developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic (hit-to-kill) weapons and directed-energy weapons for ASAT missions.” A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners as envisioning a “space shock and awe strike...[to] shake the structure of the opponent’s operational system of organization and...create huge psychological impact on the opponent’s policymakers.” The Pentagon noted in 2009 that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites.’”
Direct and indirect challenges to U.S. space supremacy are already happening. According to General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Intentional interference with space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communication satellites, while not routine, now occurs with some regularity.”
All of this may serve as an argument for shifting space operations, including manned spaceflight, to the U.S. military. Yet such a transformation is many years away for many reasons: Pentagon turf battles, Obama’s qualms about the military use of space, lack of support in Congress and lack of will in general.
It’s a president’s responsibility to set priorities, and space is simply not a priority for this president. But don’t take my work for it. As AP reported in 2009, Obama nominated “nearly 200 officials, including an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, an assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, and actor Kal Penn as a White House liaison” before getting around to naming Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.
Governing is about making choices. When it comes to the U.S. space program this president has made the wrong choices.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.