Congress, NASA

Briefly: Lamenting the shuttle’s end and NASA’s future

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.

34 comments to Briefly: Lamenting the shuttle’s end and NASA’s future

  • amightywind

    That is beyond foolish,” he writes. (So, SLS and MPCV are nothing?)

    Nothing like biased commentary inserted into the brief. SLS and MPCV, formerly known as Constellation, was born out of revulsion for Obama’s flippant NASA plan. But it faces an uncertain future. There is no program. There is a proposed program and the NASA leadership is dragging its feet at that. It is 2004 all over again. But you know that.

    Mike Griffin has been increasingly visible in the space debate. He is a playa. We haven’t seen the last of him at NASA.

    ..bemoans NASA’s current situation and lays the blame squarely on the Obama Administration.

    This will be a potent election issue in Florida as unemployment spikes once again because of Armageddon on the space coast.

  • Mike Griffin has been increasingly visible in the space debate. He is a playa. We haven’t seen the last of him at NASA.

    LOL, Griffin is a blowhard and is irrelevant. All his input is partisan theater like your’s Windy.

    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.

    I read an article a while back about a large block of Congress-critters forming to preserve the cost-plus way of NASA contracts to a single large contractor and the recently signed agreement between ULA and NASA points in that direction. All that is happening now is a subtle realignment of who gets what of a shrinking pie.

    The more things change the more they stay the same.

  • Michael from Iowa

    If we stick with the SLS/MPCV we’ll just end up in the exact same position as we did under Constellation. Congress will give the program just enough funding to provide jobs, but not enough to get anything done. As Congress continues to cut the budget, NASA will have to start cutting science, technology, and commercial development programs to keep the SLS afloat. And then in five years when the next administration takes over, they’ll cancel the SLS as well.

    I’d rather see NASA take a few years and devote themselves solely to science missions and developing new technology. Let the commercial programs and Russians deal with the busywork of transporting crew and cargo to orbit and free up NASA to focus its effort on building a next generation spacecraft rather than just recycling existing components.

  • Egad

    > He is a playa.

    He’s a dry lake? That doesn’t seem very nice.

  • Byeman

    “the recently signed agreement between ULA and NASA points in that direction”

    Not so. All of NASA’s ULA contracts are fixed price.

  • Ferris Valyn

    It would seem more organizations are getting interested in the SLS debate – POGO filed some Freedom of Information Act with NASA over it

  • ok then

    Poor Mike Griffin. Has their ever been a more pitiful former NASA administrator? I almost feel he’s self-destructing before our eyes and needs an intervention.

  • Rhyolite

    Ferris Valyn wrote @ July 20th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Unfortunately it doesn’t provide specifics on which studies were FOIAed

    There was some discussion over at Selenian Boondocks about the HLPT studies:

    http://selenianboondocks.com/2011/06/will-the-hlpt-reports-be-made-publicly-available/#comments

    Those would likely indicate just how bad of a deal son-of-Ares is.

  • National Defense Magazine covers how commercial oriented space solutions may deliver more bang for the buck for the military and can invigorate the U.S. industrial base. As mentioned in the article,
    “Space increasingly will become commercialized and the resulting lower cost of entry has implications for the Defense Department, particularly in launch. The department is collaborating with the White House, NASA and other agencies to develop a new space transportation policy that reflects the end of the shuttle program and the beginning of more commercial space launch entrants.”
    Here’s the link.
    http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=475

  • Not so. All of NASA’s ULA contracts are fixed price.

    For the time being, we’ll see when NASA has to buy blocks of Atlas Vs like the Air Force does before the prices go up.

    The way the politics are heading, ULA (and Boeing at KSC) will get the prime cuts while everyone else gets gristle and floor sweepings.

  • DCSCA

    “Not that [Griffin's] opinion matters…”

    He’s right. It doesn’t.

  • DCSCA

    “(The Chronicle’s editors appear to have forgotten the Apollo-Shuttle interregnum that lasted for nearly six years).”

    A poor choice of wording on their part to be sure, but, in fact, shuttle was in work from ’72 on so there was at least a definitive ‘next step’ in the pipeline. Today, much less certainity. Upon visiting KSC in early 1978, probably the nadir of activity during the time frame noted, the place was literally a ghost town, save construction work reconfiguring the pads for shuttle utilizing girdered steel on site from some dismantled Saturn launch service tower components, so the guides said. Press stand was unpainted and deterorating, the famed countdown clock cold and blank; Saturn interstage farings lay in the weeds around the VAB as well and the displayed Saturn V remained exposed to the elements on its side, streaked w/bird droppings. The shell of the Apollo 13 CM was on display, empty of components, shunted off in a corner of the then TWA run Visitor’s Center. In the same time frame they were demolishing rusting gantrys, including Glenn’s pad 19 M/A complex.

    Of course it’s not the same there now, in 2011, but expect a similar sense of silence in the next few years there as one era closes and another one will open, hopefully within a decade. Something space enthusiasts will consider this July 20th, 42 years to the day after the first Apollo moon landing and 12 hours from ‘wheel’s stop’ on the thirty year space shuttle program.

  • John Malkin

    Bush didn’t lift a finger to save Shuttle. Griffin at least told both Senate and House subcommittees that they needed to decide to keep supply lines open and running or it would be too expensive to restart Shuttle. They did nothing. Shuttle was dead long before Obama came to office. Bush also didn’t fight when they cut Constellation from its original projections.

  • Robert G. Oler

    What I find a hoot about Smith’s op ed…is that he is one who calls for privatizing almost everything in the federal government…and yet his op ed is to shill for federal spending to keep people employed…goofy

    Robert G. Oler

  • J Lomas

    We need to look toward the future – there is one, believe it or not.
    Hopefully the gap in human spaceflight from America’s shores will less than before, that it will be commercial is more forthcoming. I don’t care that it will be Boeings effort; SNC,or SpaceX, just that we move forward. Right now commercial ops begin albeit under control of the RSA and thats going to be to the ISS. When (a ‘what if’ when at that) Bigelow launches his Sundancer/BA330 modules (seems like the latter) then it is going to get busier with, hopefully, more launches from Kennedy and more business or the launcher providers.
    NASA may design the next ‘Interplanetary’ spaceship but even that may not be certain now.
    Politics have played the part in moving to where we are as of 6.00am ET on 7/21/2011 – politics at NASA, Congress and the White House and ‘naysayers’ who were not prepared to research what we needed and where we needed to be right now.

  • Coastal Ron

    dad2059 wrote @ July 20th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    For the time being, we’ll see when NASA has to buy blocks of Atlas Vs like the Air Force does before the prices go up.

    Apparently NASA programs are the ones that buy launchers, not NASA as a whole. Because of that they don’t buy ahead, or get volume discounts like the Air Force.

    It’s one of those funding issues that looks good on paper (costs are contained within each program), but doesn’t make economic sense when buying common parts or services.

    At least they have NASA Launch Services (NLS) II Contract so they get some purchasing leverage, but something will need to change internally for future programs to really leverage volume discounts of any sort.

    This is not unique to NASA, or even to just government purchasing, but with the dollars involved it’s more noticeable.

  • Vladislaw

    Rick Boozer wrote:

    “National Defense Magazine covers how commercial oriented space solutions may deliver more bang for the buck for the military and can invigorate the U.S. industrial base. As mentioned in the article,”

    I don’t understand Rick, this doesn’t make any sense, Gary Church/Virgle Simms said that the DOD was just dying to launch on a NASA only heavy lift launch vehicle .. not any of these commercial hobby rockets.

  • tom

    Some points. OMB made the decision, NASA could have Shuttle or CxP but not both. Shuttle appropriations would go to CxP. Some CxP milestones got slipped waiting for Shuttle money to be free. Mike Griffin has said too many (and to me) it was dumb to retire the Shuttle without a system actually flying that can take over. Very soon people will look back longingly to the days the shuttle flew, lament the loss of a lunar program and eventual missions to Mars, but take heart commercial operators and NASA are flying to LEO 2-6 times a year. However in 2013 that could all change and we could be back on track with a great leader who has actually built and flown things, run a business and understands rocket science! Hopefully the next Administration will get us back to exploration and also support commercial to LEO!

  • Googaw

    It’s amazing that “rocket scientists” like Griffin can’t even bother to do simple arithmetic. There is not money enough to get a fourth the way through SLS/MPCV, and even then funding it will require gutting a bunch of other space projects.

  • Breaking news … Aviation Week reports that NASA has agreed to allow SpaceX to combine its second and third demo flights, so the Dragon will launch November 30 for a December 7 docking with the ISS.

    Here comes history, boys and girls.

  • tom wrote:

    Mike Griffin has said too many (and to me) it was dumb to retire the Shuttle without a system actually flying that can take over.

    Oh, here we go again with the same noise disinformation machine.

    Shuttle was cancelled by the Bush administration in January 2004 after the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued its report calling Shuttle “a complex and risky system.” The administration decided to continue flying Shuttle only to complete the ISS, move routine crew rotations to Soyuz because it was considered safer, and to retire Shuttle once ISS construction was complete. STS-134 completed ISS construction, and that’s why Shuttle was retired.

    The commercial cargo program began in 2005 under Griffin’s administration to have a means of supplying the ISS once Shuttle retired. Perhaps he’s forgotten.

  • With Jeff’s indulgence …

    We live in north Merritt Island about six miles from the KSC employee gate. I videotaped the orbiter’s arrival this morning. You don’t see anything, of course, but you get to hear the twin sonic booms.

    Click here to listen. (Turn up your stereo speakers for the full effect!)

    Will we ever hear this again? Perhaps the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser will make twin sonic booms one day.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Stephen C. Smith wrote @ July 21st, 2011 at 8:08 am

    “Will we ever hear this again? Perhaps the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser will make twin sonic booms one day.”

    to get twin booms you will need “a double delta”. RGO

  • Coastal Ron

    tom wrote @ July 20th, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    However in 2013 that could all change and we could be back on track with a great leader who has actually built and flown things, run a business and understands rocket science!

    Such a political animal does not exist.

    Does Bachmann qualify? Or Pawlenty? The last Republican candidate for President, John McCain, had flown things but not built anything, so even he wouldn’t qualify under your definition.

    And presuming a Republican is elected President in 2012, the mandate these days is not to spend MORE, but LESS. The Constellation program, which was a relatively modest Moon return, was budgeted in the $100B range.

    Do you see Republican’s advocating for a $100B flags & footprints program, or advocating for taking that money and reducing taxes or paying down the debt?

    Unless you can show how you’ll be exploring on a very small budget, I don’t see anyone leaving LEO very soon, except to take short trips around the Moon. We’ve always had the technical ability to return to the Moon, but what we’ve lacked is the money. And that situation has only gotten worse.

  • DCSCA

    @Stephen C. Smith wrote @ July 21st, 2011 at 8:08 am

    “We live in north Merritt Island about six miles from the KSC employee gate…”

    Knowing the program’s end was coming, no doubt you chose to rent, not buy. If you purchased, as Groucho Marx said of Florida real estate, ‘You can get stucco. Boy, can you get stucko!”

  • DCSCA

    Stephen C. Smith wrote @ July 21st, 2011 at 1:33 am
    =yawn= A space program by press release is not a space program.

    But good for NASA pushing the hobbyists to ‘get with the program’ and fly a version of ‘all up testing.’ You may just hear a ‘boom’ again soon after all….

  • DCSCA

    @John Malkin wrote @ July 20th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    “Bush didn’t lift a finger to save Shuttle.”

    If you read through the CAIB report, it’s pretty clear that NASA management itself shortened shuttle’s life by demonstrating its own deadly incompetence in the way they mismanaged the Columbia foam strike. It was essentially Challenger redux. Bush’s failure was to fight to secure adequate funding for the follow along in his VSE proposal, which is exactly the same failure of leadership his father demonstrated in 1989 when Pappy proposed a similar space initiative. It’s always the same thing: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

    At $500 million – $1 billion a mission, it was time to end the space shuttle program and thirty years is a pretty goo run. It simply was not a cost effective fit for the Age of Austerity. The real challenge now is for NASA to develop a rationale for HSF and sell it to the American people beyond the ‘gee-whiz’ flag-waving phase. As valuable as the ‘Cernan intangibles’ are, they cannot carry the load on their own as a reason for HSF to a cash-strapped nation. Russia incorporated a rationale for HSF into its ‘national character’ decades ago and has been regularly flying people into space since 1961. It’s part of who they are. China is developing a rationale as well. America’s space program has always been reactive, not proactive, motivated by competition. Don’t expect that mind set to change any time soon.

  • Googaw

    Yet another symptom that it’s a preposterous misnomer to label as “commercial” a “market” that is 99%+ government contracts.

  • vulture4

    Peculiar quote form Mike Griffin:

    “What if we had kept the systems we had until we were certain we had something better, not letting go of one handhold until we had another?”

    Well Mike, you’re right, we could long ago have built a new shuttle based on all we learned, that would be practical and safe. Why didn’t we??? Wait a minute, it was because YOU canceled the shuttle, destroyed the tooling, shut down all the reusable launch vehicle technology projects, and left us with no one who has any experience maintaining reusable spacecraft!

    Of course Griffin never questions his own decisions. He is talking about Apollo, not Shuttle. He considers Shuttle useless because it only goes to LEO. A little history, Mike: The public was bored with Apollo by the second landing. Another Apollo, even on steroids, would end like the first.

  • DCSCA

    The Epilogue of America’s manned space program has been penned. On July 21, 2011, Russia proclaims “The Era of Soyuz”….

    Or, as Volkswagen said in an old Beetle ad from 1969 which featured an image of the LM: “It’s Ugly. But it gets you there.”

  • Coastal Ron

    Googaw wrote @ July 21st, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Yet another symptom that it’s a preposterous misnomer to label as “commercial” a “market” that is 99%+ government contracts.

    Well as Bert & I would say, “You cahn’t get theyah from heeah“.

    If you think a 100% commercial marketplace will pop-up without the logistics system to create it, then you’re pretty naive. Here’s how I think it will really happen:

    1. The ISS needs delivery of people and cargo, so commercial companies supply both. This is 100% government revenue.

    2. Using the same commercial transportation systems as the ISS uses, entities like Bigelow Aerospace start experimenting with business models in LEO. Not all will work, and I don’t know how long it will take to become established and growing, but it will happen. This experimentation also provides the profit incentive for current and future commercial transport companies, since the ISS business will likely be a loss-leader.

    3. At some point the non-ISS business will outgrow the ISS/government business, and that is when the market no longer needs NASA’s business to survive, but I think NASA will come to rely on commercial transportation services to lower it’s costs for mounting exploration missions.

    This is a model that has worked with many transportation systems we depend upon today, so it’s not novel.

    I’d love to hear how you think the non-goverment sector will get established in space and thrive on it’s own without any government money.

  • Bob Mahoney

    Dragon is berthed when a cargo carrier; it doesn’t dock.

  • vulture4

    “I’d love to hear how you think the non-goverment sector will get established in space and thrive on it’s own without any government money.”

    SpaceX has about 50% commercial contracts in its unmanned satellite launch manifest, which is more than any other vehicle launching from US soil. (ULA has not pursued commercial business competitively since US government launches are more profitable.) I agree that “human” spaceflight will be almost all government (and a small market at that) until the prices come down enough to attract more tourists.

  • Coastal Ron

    vulture4 wrote @ July 24th, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    I agree that “human” spaceflight will be almost all government (and a small market at that) until the prices come down enough to attract more tourists.

    I know you seem to think that that there are only two types of people that want or need to go to LEO (U.S. ISS crew & tourists), but you keep forgetting Bigelow clients, and I think you also ignore the potential for increased ISS related traffic with the commercial 7-passenger capsules. Any of the ISS partners could contract for their own trip during a crew rotation flight, which is the type of short-term visit that the Shuttle made popular.

    And, as I’ve stated before, I don’t even factor tourism into what I track for LEO demand since it’s dependent on access to a destination, and I think the few destinations that will be available will be getting plenty of visits for their own needs.

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