There’s been a lot of discussion about NASA administrator Mike Griffin’s leaked email about the future of the space station. It’s a fascinating, honest, and cogent look at where we stand now at the crossroads of the Shuttle and the eventual Ares/Orion system. He’s precisely right on the facts. He’s also too pessimistic. The failure and danger he foresees can be turned into opportunity.
Here’s a quick precis of the situation as it stands. The shuttle is being retired. There is a non-negotiable finite number of possible shuttle launches remaining due to the fact that the external tanks are not reusable and Lockheed-Martin is no longer making them. Once the remaining tanks are used, the shuttle fleet instantly becomes museum pieces. Some two hundred miles above the earth, the International Space Station orbits, funded at tremendous expense mostly by the US but also by various other space programs involved in the project. Only one of those nations has the ability to get to the ISS by itself – Russia, via their Soyuz launch vehicles. As you may have noticed, Russia and the US are not on the best of terms at the moment. But once the shuttles are gone, Russia is the only way astronauts of any country can get to the ISS. And Russia doesn’t need the US’s help to run the ISS. Though it wouldn’t be easy, they could do it themselves short of deliberate US sabotage – which Griffin says would never happen short of war (which is good). Let me quote him, because he speaks the truth:
The rational approach didn’t happen, primarily because for OSTP and OMB, retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision. Further, they actively do not want the ISS to be sustained, and have done everything possible to ensure that it would not be…
This administration will not yield with regard to continuing shuttle operations past 2010, but the next administration will have no investment in that decision. They will tell us to extend the shuttle. There is no other politically tenable course. It will appear irrational – heck, it will be irrational – to say we’ve built a Space Station we cannot use, that we’re throwing away a $100 billion investment, when the cost of saving it is merely to continue flying Shuttle. Extending Shuttle does no damage that they will care about, other than to delay the lunar program. They will not count that as a cost. They will not see what that does for US leadership in space over the long term. And even if they do, they have a problem in the short term that must be solved. Flying Shuttle is the only way to solve it.
It’s the hideously expensive taxpayer-funded modern Ouroboros. The space station is a hugely expensive investment that’s useless without a space shuttle to service it. The space shuttle is a hugely expensive investment that’s useless without a space station to service. Even when both are available to provide a use for the other, the tiny amount of science that gets done in the space station is absolutely microscopic in terms of the firehose of cash being blasted skyward. The administration is absolutely right to call a jihad on the shuttle. Where the administration fails is in openly acknowledging that the jihad has got to include the ISS as well. The ISS is the worst decision in human spaceflight, kept aloft only by the sheer political embarrassment that would be sustained by admitting the entire thing is a waste of money. NASA’s human spaceflight mission should be to press human flight further and further into the solar system, or to do ground-based research and development until further human flight is practical. NASA’s mission should not be to spend two billion a year on the ISS to maintain a small and nearly useless outpost which is not even high enough to avoid appreciable atmospheric drag. That’s not even counting the shuttle, which is around a staggering 4 billion a year – currently entirely devoted to servicing the ISS. Now even so that’s only around $20 per taxpayer per year. But it is still roughly equivalent to the entire NSF budget.
So here’s my suggestion. The president should call a conference in the Rose Garden and make a speech:
“My fellow Americans, through the fantastic efforts and science of NASA, the United States has been proud to take the lead in space exploration by constructing the International Space Station. Now that we’ve completed our objectives in understanding long-term human presence in space, it’s time to move on and focus our full attention on the return to the moon and thence to the planets beyond. It is thus in the spirit of friendship and scientific cooperation even in difficult times that we offer to give the Space Station to Russia and the rest of the ISS nations, free of charge and without requirements of any kind. We hope to continue our journey to the stars for the betterment of all mankind.”
And if Russia has any sense at all, they’ll decline. Cunning, repressive ex-KGB autocrats are many things, but they’re rarely stupid. Why in the world would they want the expense? But either way we won’t be paying for the thing anymore and we can focus our efforts and money on the lunar exploration program.
And if they don’t want it, send up a final shuttle mission, have the astronauts rip out everything salvageable, and bring all the crew home. Then call up USSTRATCOM and have them let the Navy fire up one of their Aegis systems and take a practice shot with an SM-3. A hundred billion is a lot to spend on a practice target, but we might as well get some use out of it during the decommissioning. Heck, float cameras around it broadcasting to earth, slap ads on the side of the ISS, and make some money filming the explosion.
In the final analysis, when you’re down at a casino the thing to do is cut your losses and leave. The thing to not do is keep gambling and hope you win your money back. Yes the ISS has been very expensive. Yes it would not be politically easy to just let the thing die. But in an election that’s about change, I’d love to see someone commit to changing the orbit of the ISS to something that intersects sea level.