News: CJ Exclusives

America’s On & Off Space Program

RALEIGH—The United States’ space program can be compared to a light switch without a dimmer, an associate editor of Carolina Journal said Monday. The program has only two positions: on and off.

After the space shuttle Columbia disaster Feb. 1, government officials and the media began re-examining U.S. space policy. The media have not done a good job of putting the disaster into context, Lowrey said at a luncheon sponsored by the John Locke Foundation. “It is painfully obvious that there is no range of policy options” for the space program, he said.

The United States began using space shuttles in 1981 with the launch of Columbia. Previously, numerous unmanned rockets had been shot into space, but manned missions were rare, Lowrey said. NASA’s original goal was to launch four space shuttles on 60 flights per year, but the agency decreased the goal to 24 flights because of budget constraints and logistical concerns. The shuttle quickly became NASA’s entire space program, ferrying all U.S. satellites and materials into space.

In 1986, the explosion of Challenger only one minute into its flight changed everything, Lowrey said. NASA’s focus and reliance on the shuttle no longer worked. In 1986, the shuttle no longer carried commercial satellites into space, more unmanned rockets were launched, and all scientific research was temporarily removed from the shuttle, Lowrey said.

After the Challenger disaster, NASA found a new purpose for the space shuttle in the form of the Mir Space Station. Subsequently, the International Space Station and the shuttle became Siamese twins, Lowrey said. The shuttle existed to service the space station and the space station provided the shuttle with a purpose. They cannot exist independently, Lowrey said.

There are no real options for the space program, Lowrey said. The United States cannot terminate the program because of contractual obligations to its international partners and because the life of the space station depends on the shuttle. Russia’s near-bankrupt space program provides the Soyuz escape pod for the space station and the Progress resupply vehicle, but the station cannot exist without U.S. support, he said.

The shuttle fulfills numerous space station needs, including astronaut transportation, delivery of food, water, and parts, and periodic re-boosting so the space station will not be pulled out of orbit by the Earth’s gravity, Lowrey said.

Because of budgetary constraints and the Columbia disaster, NASA now operates under the “Core Complete” program in which the United States fulfills only its vital role and pushes back other obligations to the future. The United States has promised to increase crew capacity at the space station in the future in order to augment scientific returns of the space station. Currently, the station can accommodate only three people. Two of the crew are needed to operate the station, which leaves only one person to perform scientific experiments, Lowrey said.

The United States cannot justify the expense of manned space flights or the space station based on scientific returns, Lowrey said, but, at this point, the best policy is to continue the space program in its current form because there are no other feasible options. In the future, an orbital space plane and increased capacity at the space station could yield better results. Unmanned missions will continue to probe questions of life and water on Mars and increase our understanding of evolution on other planets, he said.

Ashley is an editorial intern at Carolina Journal.