NASA finds itself in a terrible dilemma. It has cash enough only to fund shuttle ops through 2010. The administration and Congress have flatlined NASA’s budget and so the new Orion cannot appear sooner than 2015. We will rely totally on Russian Soyuz transport to the ISS after 2011, and Congress has not even granted authority for NASA to purchase those services. Russia now seems a shaky partner to entrust with the key to the space station for 4+ years. Yet that is the prospect.
Mike Griffin’s latest interview is technically astute: we need to retire shuttle to free up funds to build and test Orion. There seems little prospect Congress will bump up the budget top line. A new administration will have a stark choice: surrender US access to ISS by relying solely on Russia, or keep flying the shuttle, which is risky to crews and will eat up the funds for Orion and other major NASA programs. A new administration may decide to choose the short term expedient of keeping shuttle flying, and not increase the NASA budget. Result — long-term disaster. We would squeeze Orion and delay its debut, defer the heavy Ares V cargo rocket and the Altair lander, and essentially delete the deep-space goals set for NASA by the administration and Congress in 2004.
Such a move would guarantee that the US will surrender leadership in human spaceflight, expressing a lack of will to keep Americans on the exploration frontier. The only solution I see is to educate a new administration that maintaining US leadership in space will now be expensive, the result of four years of fiscal neglect. The NASA budget will have to be increased if we are to maintain Americans on the station, and yet accelerate Orion to minimize our reliance on a risky Russian monopoly.
The question: will our leaders care?