Hard to believe, but twenty years ago this December 17, the presidentially chartered Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program issued an especially significant report to the president that recommended the replacement of the Space Shuttle. Chaired by the universally respected aerospace leader, Norm Augustine, it advocated greater funding for human spaceflight, robotic probes, space science, applications, and exploration. This blue ribbon committee published its findings in the Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990). The report is available here.
Among its most important conclusions, in looking at several key aspects of human spaceflight, Augustine’s committee found that the United States was over-reliant “upon the continued successful and timely operation of the Space Shuttle” and recommended its replacement by the year 2000. This represented the first instance in which outside reviewers advocated the retirement of the Space Shuttle and its replacement by another human spaceflight vehicle . Nothing came of this recommendation.
Other studies followed and in 1993 NASA undertook a broad access to space study to review requirements for the period 2005-2030. The team examined three launch alternatives:
- Upgrade the Space Shuttle and keep it flying until 2030.
- Develop a new expendable launcher.
- Replace the Space Shuttle with a “next-generation, advanced technology system…a ‘leapfrog’ approach, designed to capitalize on advances made in NASP and SDI programs to achieve order-of-magnitude improvements in the cost effectiveness of space transportation.”
The study team strongly advocated development of a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that would be ready for flight by 2005, while continuing the Space Shuttle as the only option in the interim. The report commented, “The most beneficial and cost-effective upgrades should be considered for incorporation into these [shuttle] vehicles until the new single-stage-to-orbit vehicle becomes available.”
Because of these recommendations, and those of other reports that echoed the need to replace the shuttle, the United States has advanced multiple proposals since at least the mid-1980s to build a Space Shuttle follow-on that would be less expensive and safer to operate. At the same time, the target date for Space Shuttle replacement shifted further into the future over the years, with the replacement date usually at least eight-to-ten years away. National space policy and NASA reversed courses several times during the 1980s and 1990s with respect to pursuing an aggressive effort to replace the Space Shuttle versus putting considerable investment into upgrades to keep it flying for a longer period.
This vacillation affected strategy concerning the future of the Space Shuttle and human spaceflight, especially so because resources always proved a challenge and because there was no interest in investing significant dollars into developing a new vehicle. The result has been that when projects face technical or budgetary challenges NASA has tended not to stay with them, and project engineers have been whipsawed by changing decisions and priorities. In the process considerable resources were expended on projects that never reached fruition.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003 recognized this situation when it concluded:
As a result of the haphazard policy process that created these still-born developmental programs, the uncertainty over Shuttle replacement persisted. Between 1986 and 2002, the planned replacement date for the Space Shuttle was consistent only in its inconsistency: it changed from 2002 to 2006 to 2012, and before the Columbia accident, to 2020 or later.
Accordingly, NASA went down the path of new vehicle development without a clear mandate and little funding to make it a reality.
For more than a decade before the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003, NASA leadership hoped to replace the shuttle as soon as possible, but treated the program as desirable rather than necessary. No national commitment to a multi-billion dollar investment for a shuttle replacement ever took place. The lack of a firm decisions, despite policy studies recommending replacement, represents the single most egregious failure of decision-making in space policy.
Without a doubt, moving to a next generation human launcher will cost a significant amount of money. It always has. As a measure of governmental investment in a first generation of launchers, for instance, the Eisenhower administration undertook a study in the summer of 1957 and learned that through fiscal year 1957 the nation had spent $11.8 billion on military space activities in then-year dollars. “The cost of continuing these programs from FY 1957 through FY 1963,” Eisenhower was told, “would amount to approximately $36.1 billion, for a grand total of $47 billion.” That investment brought to the nation its first generation of space access vehicles. With modifications and upgrades, and only a couple of later projects creating Pegasus and Atlas 5, the nation continues to fly those legacy vehicles. In 2010 dollars, for comparison, this would have represented an investment of more than $240 billion.
There is every reason to believe that future human spaceflight vehicles will also require an investment beyond the level normally granted to NASA’s programs. A public investment of even 10-15 percent of the amount spent in the 1950s ury could conceivably make possible an enormous advance in human launch vehicle technology.
No doubt, building a new human-rated launcher will require a considerable investment. If the United States intends to fly humans into space as the twenty-first century proceeds it must be willing to foot the bill for doing so. If Americans are unwilling as a people to make that investment, as longtime NASA engineer and designer of the Mercury spacecraft Max Faget stated in 2004, “we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”
A lot has happened since Max Faget offered that stinging rebuke. The Constellation program was started and ended, the Space Shuttle is nearing retirement, and still there is no consensus on what next to do in the human spaceflight program of the United States. Where should we go? What would you like to do, and more importantly, when will we achieve it?