Overlooked in last week’s discussion of the NASA budget was a statement by The Planetary Society on its solution to the agency’s budget constraints. The society’s solution boils down to a single statement: end the shuttle program now. Simple, yes, but fraught with problems. What about domestic politics? “Starting other programs earlier, such as the Mars-related heavy lift launch development can mitigate economic dislocations.” And the international implications? “Instead of the partners being asked to wring their hands and deplore American attitudes, let’s ask them to join with us to develop international solutions and programs to advance our human space-flight ambitions, as well as their own.”
There is, of course, a grain of truth to all this: the shuttle program, and to a large extent the station program as well, constitute a pair of millstones around the neck of NASA: they are the programs that are keeping NASA from spending more on science and exploration programs. Yet to think one can simply wave a magic wand and have the shuttle program go away is a bit naive. In addition to entrenched political and business interests, there are issues like workforce retention and infrastructure that would have to be addressed by any plan to shut down the shuttle program early. Would international partners be willing to spend significant additional money to find alternate means to launch and assemble their station components—assuming such alternatives are technically feasible? Or is the US willing to go it alone on the exploration plan, at perhaps a higher cost down the road?
It’s easy to see how compelling the notion is of ending the shuttle program now, rather than in 2010. What’s more difficult is to see is the path needed to carry out that notion, and just how effective it would be in the long run.