The Space Shuttle & the Obama Administration


The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article published on the 17th of December regarding the Obama Transition Team and the decisions relating to NASA and the upcoming cutoff of the Space Shuttle in 2010. 


Tough Decision Looms on Space Shuttle's Fate

"President-elect Barack Obama's NASA transition team faces a tough early choice between extending the life of the aging space shuttle and accelerating its replacement.

Bush-administration plans call for grounding the shuttle by 2010 for budget and safety reasons. But congressional and industry critics worry that the expected five-year gap before the shuttle's replacement is prepared to blast off would lead to a crippling loss of program expertise and sap political support for manned space flights.

Federal, state and local lawmakers are distressed about losing thousands of jobs now associated with shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Some also point out that speedy retirement of the shuttle will force NASA to temporarily rely on Russian launches to reach the International Space Station.

Obama transition-team members are weighing various options, including speeding up development of follow-on systems and keeping the shuttle flying through 2015. Transition-team members declined to comment.

Full Article


I have some issues with this, despite Pres/Elect Obama's support for the space program. He's gone on record saying that he does support the agency and has suggested some retooling might be in order (I can't remember exactly where I read that), but as Neil Armstrong states below in a followup letter to the editor published over the weekend, it's not really the transition team's place to start making the suggestions now:


I certainly hope that isn't accurate, in that the transition team should play no part in such decisions. While these men and women are experienced and enthusiastic space program veterans, they are neither aerospace engineers nor former program managers and cannot be sufficiently knowledgeable to make choices in the technical arena.

The transition team does have the responsibility to collect information to assist President-elect Obama in understanding the issues and decisions he will be facing. The making of decisions of such import, however, is the responsibility of the president and should be guided by the best advice from the most able and skilled experts on the subject. He should have no difficulty receiving high-quality information from NASA. Engineers are painfully honest and insist on presenting any assumptions used in their decision process. Therefore a conclusion can only be challenged when an erroneous assumption can be identified. Because this approach is somewhat unfamiliar in business and politics, its importance is often overlooked.


I like this response, but I don't think that the tranition team is looking to do any major retooling at the moment, nor do I think that the political machine here is necessarily naive when it comes to this aspect of politics - one of the things that I've been most impressed with Obama's team is the level of expertise that has been brought in on all sorts of posts so far. Given that, I'd be more inclined to believe that if NASA says that they can't extend the life of the shuttle, focus will shift to the replacement, Orion. However, it is their responsibility to begin to anticipate the problems and policy changes that will be coming up in the next two and a half years. During that time, there will likely be a decision on the matter. It is the responsibility of the team to listen to the experts on the matter, and take this into consideration. 


Where I have issues is the possibility of extending the shuttle life an additional five years beyond the end date - as we've been seeing on a number of recent launches, most tragically with the Columbia in 2003, things are starting to fall off, and there's been some problems here. (Granted, the problems are on the main fuel tank, not the shuttle, but as the shuttle fleet ages, the probability of problems will arise) While there are risks on every mission, and a number of risks has to be acceptable in space, losing another shuttle crew would likely be devestating to the plans that NASA has underway for future missions. The shuttle fleet should be kept safe, but a replacement should be worked on in due time. 


I'm not much for engineering, so I don't know if a shuttle replacement should be rushed. NASA had a long time to build up to the moon missions and later the shuttle program, and they've likely learned some things that will be utilized in the future. That being said, a five year wait between shuttles is a very long time to wait. Without a shuttle, the US can't repair any of its major satellites (although Hubble will be going offline at some point in the near future) and won't be able to assist any astronauts in space in the event that there is a problem on the ISS or with any of the other space hardware that's up there. 


That all being said, I am heartened by Armstrong's words in his letter:


"Even so, the agency has fashioned a challenging but credible program to return to the moon and go on toward Mars.

NASA's management is very strong and its engineering and scientific talent extraordinary. I believe they can be counted on to deliver new knowledge, excitement and inspiration as they continue their expansion of the human boundary."