IT MAY BE the supreme irony of the Space Age.
Thirty-four years after the United States trounced the Soviet Union in the race to the moon, NASA's shuttle fleet is grounded, and we depend on the Russians' 1960s-era Soyuz capsules to put American astronauts into orbit.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan called for a "National Aerospace Plane" that could take off from a runway, reach orbit in a single stage and return to Earth as routinely as an airliner. A decade and billions of dollars later, engineers joked that the space plane would have to be built of "unobtainium." Today they're not joking at all. The United States still has nothing to replace its 20-year-old shuttle fleet, down to just three craft since Columbia broke up on re-entry Feb. 1, killing all aboard.
As a panel chaired by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. finishes its report on the Columbia disaster, due within a month, the space community is wondering whether America is willing to sustain the manned program it launched 42 years ago.
"There is no question we are at a crossroads," said Roger D. Launius, head of the space history division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "The decisions we make in the next six months to a year are the ones that are going to affect human space flight for the next 20 to 25 years."
NASA, Congress and ultimately the American public will have to decide whether the manned space program is worth the lives and treasure being risked for it. If we continue, we'll have to decide whether to patch up or replace the shuttles -- which qualify for antique license plates. And what then? Does NASA return to the proven space technology of the 1960s, or move on to something new?
A key issue is whether today's money can buy a solution to the puzzles that stymied Reagan's single-stage space plane. "We tried, technologically, to bite off more than we could chew," said John R. Rogacki, NASA's director of space transportation technology.
Engineers concluded that the air-breathing, reusable "scramjet" engine at the heart of their one-stage effort could accelerate to only 6,000 mph -- eight times the speed of sound. The craft would need a rocket boost or a heavier, more complex hybrid to reach orbital velocity of 17,200 mph. Cost projections soared.
Nor could engineers devise a workable lightweight, reusable tank for the plane's liquid hydrogen fuel, or durable new materials to shed the searing heat of re-entry without costly service between flights. The same for better systems to monitor the spacecraft's health and to speed servicing, as well as avionics to guide, dock and land a spacecraft without a crew. "Our technology has not yet advanced to the point that we can successfully develop a new reusable launch vehicle that substantially improves safety, reliability and affordability," Art Stephenson, then-director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, said in 2001.
Was the nation better at this in the 1960s? NASA landed men on the moon just eight years after President John F. Kennedy gave the order in 1961. The shuttle took to the skies in 1981, just nine years after President Richard Nixon said to make it so.
Not a fair comparison, space historians say. The early space program was driven by Cold War fears and a gusher of money. Both have vanished. "Astronauts standing on the moon with the flag were just as relevant to the ongoing rivalry with the Soviets as the building of weapons. So money flowed to that program," said Launius.
The moon race cost taxpayers $25.4 billion -- more than $123 billion in today's dollars. Also, its Mercury, Gemini and some Apollo capsules rode versions of existing military rockets whose development was already paid for -- $36.8 billion by 1963, a sum worth at least $220 billion today. "Since the end of Apollo," Launius said, "we've never felt the need to make that kind of investment."
Once America had beaten the Soviets to the moon, Nixon nearly shut down the manned space flight program. But the president's home state of California was rich in aerospace businesses and the electoral votes he needed in 1972. "He didn't want to be the president who closed down the human space flight program," said Howard E. McCurdy, a space historian at American University. "No politician of national stature has had the nerve to shut it down, and yet nobody had the nerve to invest in it sufficiently so it can accomplish its objectives."
The first three shuttles cost the government just $9.8 billion in 1980 dollars -- about $21.4 billion today. But politics, cost cutting and design compromises made the shuttle expensive to operate, and possibly more dangerous. For example, to win congressional support, NASA made the shuttles big and maneuverable enough to put Air Force spy satellites into polar orbit. But after the Challenger exploded in 1986, the Pentagon switched to expendable rockets. Today's shuttles rarely fly with full loads, and they've never flown a polar orbit.