Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Time to Scuttle the Shuttle

It may seem strange to those who were born after 1970, but during the early part of that decade going to the moon was fairly commonplace. Seeing men walk on the moon was so familiar, in fact, that people lost interest. And so did the president.

Pres. Richard Nixon, stung by the Watergate scandal and still mired in Vietnam, cut the budget for the Apollo moon program and cut the number of missions.

What had been a vibrant space program in the 1960s, culminating in man’s first visit to another celestial orb, withered and died at the hands of the domestic and foreign policy concerns of the 1970s. Left in its wake was a lackluster space program that lacked drive and ambition.

There was one more Apollo mission in 1976, but it wasn’t to the moon. It was a joint Apollo-Soyuz mission designed to show we could get along with the Soviets, at least in space.

The manned space program floundered after that. It was non-existent until the first space shuttle was launch in 1981.

The space shuttle project had been on the drawing board since the early 1970s. It was a monumental undertaking, originally meant to save on expendable rockets. The reusable shuttle seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t.

Using technology of the early 1980s the space shuttle was barely even possible. It was by far the most complex piece of machinery ever built. And from the very beginning it was marred in cost overruns and mechanical problems.

The heat shield tiles were one of the first problems. They kept falling off during tests. Without the tiles, astronauts returning to earth would vaporize.

The launch of the first space shuttle, Columbia, had to be postponed a number of times because of a recurring computer problem. It was a harbinger of things to come.

The total cost of the space shuttle program from its inception until now is estimated to have been about $150 billion, and still counting. And NASA doesn’t even know for sure when the next shuttle will launch.

Unlike any jumbo jet, the space shuttle can’t take off when the weather is not perfect. Even light cloud cover can postpone a launch. That’s not the type of space vehicle we should be basing our entire manned space program around.

I’ve said for years that the space shuttle program was ill-conceived and that it’s time to move on with another type of space vehicle. And now, the head of NASA has finally admitted just that.

Michael Griffin, NASA chief, said last week that the space shuttle program and the International Space Station were mistakes. After spending $150 billion on the shuttle, and losing 14 lives, NASA is finally ready to throw up its hands and admit the whole program was a mistake.

Well, it was a costly mistake. But it’s better late than never.

NASA is finally trying to give the manned space program a firm direction. It will retire the shuttle fleet in 2010 and set its sights back to the moon.

We now have a goal to put humans back on the moon by 2018. That seems like an extremely dilated time line, but at least it is a worthy goal.

When we finally get back to the moon, we should do what we should have done following Apollo. We should build a base there, mine it, settle it, and use it as a platform to send men and women farther into space.

That would be a solid goal and a good direction for the manned space program to take.

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