Time to reach beyond the limits of the shuttle era

April 12, 2006|By THOMAS D. JONES

On April 14, 1981, when space shuttle Columbia returned to Earth from its 37-orbit maiden voyage, a reporter asked Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad whether the United States had caught up with the Russian space program. The veteran moonwalker, having just witnessed Columbia's perfect desert touchdown, couldn't resist: "Catch 'em? Hell, we just leap-frogged 'em!"

The most amazing thing about the space shuttle, celebrating its silver anniversary this week, is that it is still flying. That today it is still our primary means of getting Americans to Earth orbit symbolizes the problematic legacy of the world's first reusable spacecraft.

The shuttle is indisputably the most complex machine ever built, using technology no other nation has come close to matching. America has benefited repeatedly over the years from the shuttle's increasingly ambitious capabilities, including satellite launches, Hubble Space Telescope repairs and the bulk of space station construction.

No other spaceship can return 40,000 pounds intact from Earth orbit, and none has served so capably as science platforms for advanced telescopes, micro-gravity laboratories and cutting-edge instruments to scan our changing Earth (such as my two 1994 Space Radar Lab missions). Perhaps most important, the shuttle has developed our ability to work in space and taught us how to combine the best talents of astronauts and machines.

Sadly, the shuttle era also has demonstrated the limits of our technology and the horrific cost of complacency when attempting space travel. The shuttle never lived up to the economic promise of reusability: Each launch still costs about $500 million, mostly spent on the massive facilities and thousands of personnel needed to operate the orbiter fleet.

The shuttle has not proved an effective successor to Apollo's achievements; its expense and temperamental complexity consumed the bulk of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's limited funding over the last three decades.

As an Air Force Academy cadet, I heard rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun predict that the shuttle would help us return to the moon by the early 1980s. He was wrong: The shuttle's development costs short-circuited NASA's plans to send advanced robotic probes across the solar system, and the epic lunar voyages were soon a closed chapter in the pages of history.

More tragically, the shuttle never lived up to its designers' hopes for routine, safe orbital operations. Two orbiters and 14 astronauts were lost in accidents, and 25 years after its debut, the vehicle is still termed "experimental." Despite their talents and the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars since Columbia's destruction in 2003, NASA's engineers will never be able to fix all the flaws in the shuttle's inherently fragile design.

The shuttle's silver anniversary, then, is a time for resolution and action. We must build its replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), and get it flying by 2012, if not sooner. With its fragile heat shield tiles and limited crew escape system, each shuttle puts its astronaut crew at high risk. Given the danger, we owe our astronauts this commitment: If they are courageous enough to fly the remaining 20 or so shuttle missions, we vow to provide them a modern, safer replacement as quickly as possible.

Some scientists say that NASA, facing tight budgets, should preserve its robotic space and Earth science missions, even if it means slowing the shuttle's replacement. But such delay extends the risk to our astronauts. For 20 years, successive presidents and Congresses postponed the shuttle's successor, delays that led in part to Columbia's demise. We must end that neglect and act; we owe our astronauts nothing less.

We should send both robots and humans into space, because only then will we maintain world leadership in exploration and find the answers we're after "out there." The president and Congress have endorsed an ambitious exploration plan. Give NASA the funds to carry it out.

Congress spent $27 billion on pork barrel projects last year, more than half again as much as the entire NASA budget. By adding just a tenth of that amount to the NASA budget (now $16.3 billion), we could quickly build the CEV, increase astronaut safety and be on our way to the moon, asteroids and Mars. We have the money to lead in space - let's find the will.

I lost seven friends three years ago on Columbia; they and their spaceship deserved a better fate. Today, we can take the best of shuttle technology, add ambition and determination, and get on with the business of exploration.

Thomas D. Jones, a Baltimore native, is a planetary scientist, a veteran of four space shuttle missions and author of "Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir." His e-mail is thomasdjones@cox.net.

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