Saturday, August 30, 2008

And Going, and Going, and Going...

The space shuttle is starting to look like the Energizer Bunny:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's staff will study whether the space
shuttle program could continue operating past its scheduled retirement in 2010,
according to an internal e-mail sent this week.

The e-mail obtained by The
Orlando Sentinel describes NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's order for a
study to determine if the shuttle could fly until 2015, when NASA's
next-generation space platform is expected to be completed.

That next-generation platform is called Constellation, consisting of a rocket/space capsule system that hearkens back to the Apollo days.

NASA had planned to mothball the Shuttle in 2010, upon completion of the International Space Station, and I'm not surprised that they may extend operations beyond that date. The Orion spacecraft is not scheduled to be ready until 2014, and in light of recent world events, buying Russian spacecraft to fill the gap is problematic at best.

The main concern is money. I've no worries about the shuttle being up to the task; after all, it was intended to operate for just ten years when it was first launched in 1981. With hundreds of flights over 27 years, even with the tragic Challenger and Columbia incidents, the shuttle has an amazing reliability and safety record. If NASA can get the money to fly it, the shuttle will do the job.

However, the reason it has taken NASA so long to develop a replacement for the shuttle stems from a lack of a definitive mission after the conclusion of the Apollo and Spacelab programs, and a lack of definitive mission now. NASA (or the President) needs to define the vision and mission of the U.S.'s manned spaceflight program. Is it going to be active science (exploration), or passive science (orbital research and observation)? It will be extremely expensive and difficult to do both, so I think the direction needs to be clearly stated. It seems that for the last 30 years we've drifted one way, and now are starting to drift another.