While the space shuttle is an awesome piece of technology, I’m glad to see the program end. The main reason is that while it is awesome technology, it’s thirty year old technology. A few years ago, I saw an article about how NASA didn’t want to fly a shuttle mission at the end of December into January, because the computers had trouble with the changeover. The calculator I bought some fifteen years ago – while not built to withstand the rigors of launch and zero-g – doesn’t have a problem with the year changing. So I’m glad it’s ending because it’s time for something new.
Now, should we have kept flying the shuttle until that new thing was ready? In an ideal world, yes. But we don’t live in an ideal world and we have to make do with what we have. And what we have is Congress. In an ideal world, Congress would tell NASA “we want you to do X.” The two would then debate over the price and timescale. Once they were agreed to a realistic and reasonable price and timescale, Congress would give them the money. Even if it took five or ten years to achieve X, Congress would make sure NASA had the money, with certain checks and reassurances. That’s an ideal world. In this world, one year Congress tells NASA “Do X.” The next year, they tell NASA to “Do X’ for $300 million less.” NASA then spends a great deal of time and money retooling for X’ only to have Congress come to them next year and say, “Do X’’ for even less.” After several more years, Congress asks NASA, “Why is Y so overbudget and behind schedule?” The biggest obstacle – even threat – to American crewed spacecraft are the politicians with their own agendas who control the purse strings. For example, some politicians bitched and moaned when Obama cut the Constellation program saying he was destroying the American space program. But I’m sure in some parallel world where Obama didn’t cut the program, many of these same politicians are bitching and moaning saying he’s destroying the country because he’s running up the debt by not cutting this overbudget and behind schedule program.
So what should be done? I believe launch to Earth orbit should become the domain of commercial launchers. True, they are as yet untested launching humans, but give them a decade. By then there should – hopefully – be a couple of space launch companies to choose from, much as there are different airlines. And what of NASA? I believe that NASA should be tasked with exploring the rest of the solar system, together with other national agencies and commercial companies where possible. But someday – hopefully sooner rather than later – we will become a spacefaring civilization and all that NASA does will be done by private companies. The end of NASA will be much like the end of the shuttle program; bittersweet, but less of an ending and more of a better beginning.