Barring a weather delay, the space shuttle Atlantis will land at the Kennedy Space Center in less than 24 hours, marking the end of an era of human spaceflight. That means a variety of commentary on the shuttle, space policy, and future of human spaceflight for NASA and the nation.
One comment that has attracted some attention is an email from former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, someone who in the past had been critical of the shuttle program. As the Houston Chronicle reports, Griffin said he wanted to retire the shuttle “as the price” of getting a follow on system. “Not that my opinion matters, but I see no sense in retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing. That is beyond foolish,” he writes. (So, SLS and MPCV are nothing?) In an op-ed in the latest issue of Aviation Week, Griffin appears willing to retire the shuttle and accept a gap, so long as there is a successor system on the horizon. “[E]ven if the shuttle had accomplished perfectly that which it was designed to do, we must move on because of what it cannot do and was never designed to do,” he concludes in the essay, adding that the “tragedy” is that there is “nothing newer or better—indeed, we are looking forward to replacing it with nothing at all.”
In an op-ed in Space News this week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the vice-chairman of the House Science Committee, bemoans NASA’s current situation and lays the blame squarely on the Obama Administration. “We are on the wrong track because these [space worker] layoffs are due to the Obama administration diverting nearly $3 billion per year out of NASA’s manned spaceflight budget from what was planned under President Bush’s budget projection,” he claims, adding later that “the Obama administration is diverting nearly $3 billion each year out of NASA’s manned spaceflight program to fund other Administration programs.” The source of that $3-billion claim isn’t clear: for example, NASA’s FY 2009 budget proposal, the last submitted under the Bush Administration, projected about $9.95 billion for human spaceflight (defined here as Space Operations and Exploration) in FY 2011; the FY11 proposal, the first to incoporate the Obama Administration’s policy changes, proposed $9.15 billion for those programs. (There is a bigger difference between the FY09 and FY12 proposals for 2012, $10.2 billion versus $8.3 billion, reflecting broader spending cuts for NASA and other federal agencies in the latter proposal.) [A reader pointed out later you do get to the nearly $3 billion difference by comparing the FY09 and FY12 budget proposals for 2012 and 2013 by looking at Exploration and ISS only, leaving out shuttle retirement/pension costs and Space Flight Support, which includes a mix of human spaceflight and other support programs.]
The Houston Chronicle also laments the end of the shuttle and NASA’s future in an editorial Wednesday, claiming, “For the first time in more than 50 years, the United States of America will not have the capability of launching American astronauts into space.” (The Chronicle’s editors appear to have forgotten the Apollo-Shuttle interregnum that lasted for nearly six years). The editorial describes the benefits of launching humans that the nation will miss, but oddly incorporates a claim that “one casualty of cutbacks to NASA will be the nation’s critically important weather satellite program.” That’s apparently a reference to the Joint Polar Satellite System, which is principally funded by NOAA, not NASA.
Not everyone is disappointed or agitated by the retirement of the shuttle. “Obama on right track in space” declared the headline of an editorial in the Decatur (Ala.) Daily today. It supports the administration’s approach of turning over LEO cargo and crew transportation to the private sector so that NASA can instead “instead focus more resources on missions like traveling to Mars.” Decatur, of course, is the home of a manufacturing facility for United Launch Alliance, which could be a major beneficiary of commercial crew transportation in particular.