As I wrote in “Sky Walking”, in 2001 I was just about to suit up for my last shuttle mission aboard Atlantis when my crew had a brief conversation with the NASA associate administrator for space operations. We were about to set off for the space station. I asked him when he anticipated explorers would leave low Earth orbit, LEO. The answer startled me.
“Oh, I don’t think that will happen until 2012 or 2013 at the soonest,” he replied nonchalantly. The date a dozen years in the future obviously didn’t faze him, but it bowled me over. I thought one of NASA’s top leaders would be eager to get America moving out into deep space once the ISS was complete. Instead, he accepted the status quo: shuttle, station, and LEO were the only goal on his horizon.
At the time I thought how I’d put everything into this flight, went all out, to hurry the completion of ISS and move on to beyond LEO…the Moon or NEOs, then Mars. Here I was about to strap into 4.5 million pounds of chemical explosives, and my boss was telling me we were going nowhere fast.
For thirty years, shuttle crews have flown their missions, at considerable risk, in the belief that they were gaining the knowledge and experience necessary to launch humans back to the Moon and beyond. These men and women climbed aboard their shuttles, not knowing whether they would ever see their families again, because their nation called them to service.
The administration’s proposed space policy breaks faith with these fine people, my colleagues. They don’t want a guaranteed flight anywhere. They want instead to see their work enable their successors to reach beyond where the shuttle could take us. Now the realization of that goal has been deferred a minimum of 15 years, and in political terms, indefinitely.
Worse, the administration canceled the shuttle’s successor, Ares/Orion, in favor of untried and unbuilt commercial vehicles. The Ares/Orion combination was designed to be ten times safer than shuttle, a worthy goal to shoot for. Taking NASA out of the LEO-access role means spaceflight will now get riskier, just 7 years after NASA’s lack of focus on safety lost Columbia and her crew. How much riskier, no can say until these new systems acquire years of service and experience.
The few Americans who will travel in space in the coming decade will face a more dangerous ride, and a distant promise of future achievement that is beyond the horizon of this administration. The president must keep faith with the NASA team and its space fliers. They have risked all to further our advances in space. The least the president can do is to honor their commitment with goals, and resources, worthy of that sacrifice.