The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, signaled the beginning of an important policy debate about the future of human spaceflight. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet, appropriately so, at the time of the accident, but wanted to return to flight as soon as possible. Its leaders pointed to the lengthy grounding of the fleet after the Challenger accident and publicly stated that a repeat of that was not what NASA wanted. Others, some of them members of Congress, thought that the shuttle fleet should not only be grounded but immediately retired.
For instance, Representative Bart Gordon (R-Texas) said he would never vote for funding to return the shuttle to flight. “It’s my opinion that we can’t make the existing orbiter as safe as it needs to be,” said Barton. “I’m not going to just sit by and put Americans at risk every time they go into space. If we had the same accident rate in our commercial aviation industry, thousands of people would be killed every day in this country, and we would not accept it.”
Most others, including the head of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) head Admiral Al Gehman, announced that America must find the technical problem that caused the loss of Columbia, fix that problem on all of the remaining orbiters, determine the appropriate organizational and management issues that allowed the technical problem to go unresolved, and only then return to flight. If NASA could not return the shuttle to flight status before the end of 2003, he believed, then so be it. “We are cautioning NASA to use the analogy” of commercial airliners, Gehman said on May 12, 2003, “in which you have to undergo a rigorous, expensive requalification or recertificaton program, and to be thinking along those lines. Even though each orbiter gets essentially hand tooled between every flight, it is not the same thing in our mind.”
During the spring of 2003 the debate over the pros and cons of human space flight seemed to swing—as it also did in the aftermath of the 1967 Apollo fire that took the lives of three astronauts, after the United States won the “Moon Race” in 1969, and after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy that claimed seven lives—more toward the cons. Although continuation of NASA’s human spaceflight program might proceed essentially unchanged after the Columbia accident, several serious options deserved sustained debate.
A core question was whether or not United States should terminate the U.S. human space flight program, including the space shuttle, U.S. participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program, and plans to develop a follow-on vehicle to replace the shuttle?
Doing so would save an annual budget for the space shuttle of approximately $4 billion, and for the space station approximately $2 billion. That amount of funding, plus whatever would be spent on a shuttle follow-on could be saved, or redirected to other space or non-space priorities such as robotic spaceflight, scientific research, homeland security, or the costs of the war on terrorism. Additionally, human lives would no longer be at risk in human spaceflight. As attractive as that might have been for some people, prestige has long been a critical component of space policy-making and dominated so many of the spaceflight decisions that it sometimes seems trite to suggest that it has been an impressive rationale over the years.
Yet, there was more to it than that, for while all recognized that prestige sparked and sustained the space race of the 1960s the failure to recognize that it continued to motivate many politicians to support NASA’s programs was significant. John F. Kennedy responded to the challenge of the Soviet Union by announcing the Apollo decision in 1961, and that rivalry sustained the effort. Kennedy put the world on notice that the U.S. would not take a back seat to its superpower rival.
The United States also built the Space Shuttle and embarked on the space station largely for prestige purposes as well. For example, the turning point for Richard Nixon’s decision in favor of proceeding with the Space Shuttle as the centerpiece of post-Apollo spaceflight came in August 1971 when Caspar Weinberger wrote an impassioned memorandum to the president that not to do so “would be confirming in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super‑power status, and our desire to maintain world superiority.”
Weinberger appealed directly to the prestige argument by concluding, “America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cities, or Appalachian relief and the like.” In a handwritten scrawl on Weinberger’s memo, Richard Nixon indicated “I agree with Cap.”11 Prestige also entered into the decision in one other way. Nixon was also unwilling to go down in history as the president who gave away the nation’s leadership in the exploration of space and ended the practice of flying astronauts, and a decision against the shuttle in his mind would have done both.12
Prestige ensured that no matter how difficult the challenges and overbearing the obstacles the United States will continue to fly in space indefinitely. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, when it appeared that all reason for human spaceflight should be questioned, no one seriously considered ending the program. Instead, support for the effort came from all quarters. Even President George W. Bush, who had always been silent on spaceflight before, stepped forward on the day of the accident to say that “The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.”13
What might be more likely is to return the Space Shuttle to flight on a limited basis with a skeleton crew, using it only for ISS construction missions where the payload bay would be fully utilized. An added advantage, if the space station could be equipped with a system to inspect the shuttle prior to undocking problems could be identified and possibly repaired.
At the same time, the U.S. could proceed with an aggressive program to replace the shuttle with another human-rated vehicle, with first flight in less than a decade. This new vehicle could be safer and more cost effective to operate. For most human spaceflight in the interim, however, the United States would rely on Russian vehicles for taking U.S. astronauts to and from ISS. As policy analyst Marcia S. Smith told a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space on April 2, 2003:
As the world readies to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight 10 days from now, the future of the U.S. human space flight program is in question. Apart from the broad questions of whether the U.S. human space flight program should continue, a more specific focus may be the cost of returning the shuttle to flight status and how long it will take. Those answers will not be known until the cause of the Columbia accident is determined, and remedies identified. If the costs are high, difficult decisions may be needed on whether to use the funds for the shuttle, for other space initiatives, or for other national priorities such as paying for the Iraqi war and homeland security. While many expect that the United States will once again rally behind NASA, only time will tell if the past is prologue.
By mid-2003 nothing about the future of the Space Shuttle and the U.S. human spaceflight program had been resolved. Questions abounded, as did opinions, but it would take until 2004 before a set of decisions were taken to end the Space Shuttle program, complete the International Space Station, use it for some period of time, and then move on to other human spaceflight efforts.