Today marks the tenth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven person crew. A lot has been, and will be, said about the accident itself and its aftermath. The accident, though, also ushered in an era of uncertainty in space policy, particularly in regards to human spaceflight, that arguably still persists to this day.
The accident, of course, immediately derailed the plans to quickly finish assembling the International Space Station, plans that created schedule pressure later identified as a contributing factor in the Columbia accident. Less than a year later, though, it looked like we had that certainty back, in the form of President George W. Bush’s speech in January 2004 unveiling the Vision for Space Exploration. We would return the shuttle to flight, use it long enough to complete the ISS and then retire it, and then bring in a next-generation crew transportation system that would return humans to the Moon by 2020.
It didn’t work out that way: while the vision was in place, the funding didn’t follow, particularly for NASA’s chosen approach to implement that new transportation, Constellation. “I think the previous administration’s plans to go to the Moon was a great vision, but only poets plan strategy without a budget,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, put it at the recent Baker Institute forum on space policy. “The Obama Administration, quite frankly, was right to pull the plug” on Constellation, she concluded.
But the Obama Administration’s plans, rolled out three years ago today, also met with opposition, resulting in the compromise enacted in the form of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that October. And even those plans look questionable today, thanks to changing fiscal environment. In that fiscal year 2011 budget proposal released exactly three years ago, the administration projected NASA’s budget to grow from $19 billion in FY11 to just under $20 billion in FY13, and on to nearly $21 billion in FY15. Today, with the FY13 budget still not resolved, $20 billion looks like a fantasy: anything around NASA’s FY12 appropriation of about $17.7 billion would be considered a major victory. Another gap between strategy and budgets is looming.
It’s easy to trace the chain of events back to the Columbia accident, but it’s also fair to ask how different events would have been without the accident. At first glance, it appears there would have been more certainty, especially in the near term: NASA would have continued with the assembly of the ISS at its planned brisk pace, completing the station much sooner. But after that? Things are less clear. At the time of the accident, NASA was embarking on the Space Launch Initiative (SLI), an effort to develop a second-generation reusable launch vehicle, but was also investigating ways to extend the life of the Space Shuttle to perhaps 2020. Would NASA have continued SLI, or would it have suffered the fate of previous RLV development efforts? And how long would NASA have tried to keep flying the shuttles? When, and how, would plans for human spaceflight beyond LEO emerge?
The Columbia accident put NASA’s human spaceflight efforts on a wandering path, from the Vision for Space Exploration to the Obama Administration’s plans to the current-day uncertainty of just what NASA will be able to afford to do. However, the accident didn’t cause that uncertainty so much as trigger events that have since been carried by an underlying uncertainty, one that arguably existed even before the accident, of just what NASA’s human spaceflight program should be doing, and why.