Inquirer Editorial: Shuttles laid off, too

Endeavour, shown here docked to the International Space Station, will spend its retirement at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Endeavour, shown here docked to the International Space Station, will spend its retirement at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. (AP PHOTO / NASA file)
Posted: July 08, 2011

With Atlantis scheduled Friday to begin the last shuttle mission, weather permitting, it's OK to be somewhat concerned about the future of manned spaceflight.

About as much as by rocket fuel, space exploration has always been powered by the romantic notion of humans reaching other planets. But the forever pragmatic President Obama has shown little sign of getting starry-eyed about reaching the heavens.

Obama had little choice, given the recession, but to jettison President George W. Bush's plan to send an American back to the moon. Obama didn't ditch Bush's goal to also put a man on Mars, but he set it for 2040, so far away that it suggests ambivalence.

And while NASA chief Charles F. Bolden has been making nice speeches about the agency's unflagging commitment to human spaceflight, his budget requests say something else. For fiscal 2012, NASA has asked for $84 billion for manned missions, far below its $104 billion in 2010.

That reduction is possible because the expensive space shuttle program, costing $1.2 billion a launch, is being curtailed. But it would be more comforting to proponents if a greater share of the savings were placed in NASA's other manned-flight endeavors.

NASA is building a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a Space Launch System, or SLS, that can take the MPCV into deep space. But instead of being able to land, like the piloted shuttles, these vehicles are being designed to parachute into the ocean, like the old moon-mission Apollo capsules.

Perhaps the romantics should be happy that NASA hasn't completely given up on human exploration, given the greater success it has had with less costly robotic missions, which don't risk anyone's life. That's important after having seven astronauts killed in each of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters.

It took years after each accident for NASA to resolve mechanical and procedural problems and return the shuttles to service. Although NASA is ceding responsibility to the private sector to replace the shuttles, it must remain the authority that insists that safety is always the first priority.

Two spacecraft designed by private companies - Orbital Sciences of Virginia and SpaceX of California - are expected to be ready to replace the shuttles in bringing cargo to the International Space Station by later this year. The private companies hope to eventually taxi humans back and forth.

In the meantime, U.S. astronauts will hitch a ride on Russian rockets whenever they need to go to the ISS. That arrangement is galling to those who will always see the Russians as competitors. But if the private companies can get their act together, the taxi rides will become just another footnote in space-travel history.

Speaking of which, amid all the consternation about the last of the three remaining space shuttles making its final road trip, time should be taken to appreciate their accomplishments, in particular the shuttles' role in building the space station and repairing the Hubble telescope.

All that's left now is for Atlantis to set down safely after its 12-day journey and join Discovery and Endeavour in retirement.

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