NASA's greatest natural obstacle is Earth's gravity. Gravity clutches at its spaceships and space stations, and it compresses air into a thick barrier against returning spacecraft. It rarely forgives an error by managers or engineers.
But there's another force that rivals the power of Earth's gravity: the pull of existing programs, such as the $92 billion International Space Station and the $3.5 billion-per-year space shuttle program. This colossal force clutches at legislators' hearts, managers' calculations, and the public's dreams-and it hinders NASA from redesigning its manned space programs for greater efficiency and productivity.
This force is demonstrated by NASA's total reliance on the shuttle to build and service the space station. With the three remaining shuttles temporarily grounded after Columbia's demise, completion of the space station is on hold while NASA relies on Russia's rockets to ferry astronauts and their victuals to and from the 200-ton, three-person station. Without the shuttle, no vehicles are available to haul the station's remaining heavy pieces.
But NASA can't do without the partially built station, say its advocates, because it provides the only way to learn how to keep people in space for the long periods that would be needed to fly to and from Mars-a longtime NASA ambition.
That means NASA, the space station, and the shuttle need one another-at least for the next several years. "I don't think there's any option of going in a new direction, at least with human space flight," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is no viable replacement for the shuttle in a six-, eight-, 10-year time frame."
The only homegrown alternative is still a paper airplane, the so-called Orbital Space Plane, which was sketched out last fall by NASA in a budget amendment. This passenger-carrying spacecraft may be ready in 2010-or several years later. It won't be ready much sooner, because NASA officials canceled a variety of alternative space-plane projects over the last 20 years. Even if the space plane is ready in 2010, the only rockets likely to be able to carry it into space are being developed by private companies with money from the U.S. Air Force, not from NASA. The new rockets-one developed by Boeing, the other by Lockheed Martin, mostly for the disappointing commercial-satellite marketplace-are scheduled to carry their first military satellite into space this month at a cost of less than $100 million per shot, far less than the amount it takes to launch each shuttle.
NASA's space plane, say its advocates, holds much promise because it is modest in design and would carry only a few passengers. The plane, as a result, would be smaller, lighter, and simpler than the shuttle, which was designed to lug large cargos and several astronauts into orbit. The shuttle's bulk-even when the cargo bay is empty-has boosted its cost per launch to more than $500 million and heightened the risks to astronauts' lives. That enormous cost, most of which is paid to contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has sucked money away from other projects. The space plane is "relatively low-risk" and could replace the shuttle as a passenger vehicle, an industry official said. Cargo, meanwhile, could be sent up on other low-cost rockets, he added.
The space plane's other allure is its development cost of $2.4 billion over the next four years. That money is far less than the planned expenditure of $16.6 billion on the shuttle fleet over the next five years; yet the amount is large enough to give politicians and contractors a stake in the program, because the armies of contractors and support personnel form a significant constituency in several states. "Can you get a space plane before 2008? If you pour a lot more money into it, probably," said former Rep. Robert Walker, who is now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. Last year, Walker chaired the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, which urged increased federal support for space programs.
Although the space plane is designed for efficiency, "it is not sexy" enough for NASA engineers, the industry official said. Many NASA engineers dislike expendable rockets, preferring NASA's long-held vision of replacing the shuttle with a completely reusable spaceship, he said. That vision, said the official, won't die easily because "in some ways, that unfulfilled vision about reuseable vehicles has its own ideology" with its own clutch on NASA's engineers. Hopes for a fully reuseable spaceship were dashed again late last year, when top NASA officials killed a $35 billion shuttle-replacement plan in favor of the space plane. For the moment, NASA is headed toward embracing the new space plane and abandoning the old vision, he said.
There's little chance that the shuttle and space station will be sidelined in favor of something else, such as a mission to Mars, said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "If you are seriously going to talk about changing direction and talk about going back to the moon or to Mars, it would require a lot more money," he said. That's more money, not money freed by the retirement of the 30-year-old space shuttles.