Now the U.S. space program itself is middle-aged, facing a painful transition. Atlantis will blast off, if all goes as planned, at 11:26 a.m. Friday for a 12-day mission to the international space station. And then . . . what?
Then a lot of uncertainty. The only sure bet is that thousands of people here will be out of a job.
NASA’s critics say the human spaceflight program is in a shambles. They see arm-waving and paperwork rather than a carefully defined mission going forward. NASA has lots of plans, but it has no new rocket ready to launch, no specific destination selected, and no means in the near term to get American astronauts into space other than by buying a seat on one of Russia’s aging Soyuz spacecraft.
The space agency’s leaders say everything’s on track, that the private sector will soon launch astronauts into orbit and let NASA focus on the hard work of deep-space exploration. There is a new heavy-lift rocket in the works, one capable of going far beyond the stamping grounds of the shuttle. President Obama has picked a destination, a near-Earth asteroid, though he did not say which one.
“We have a program. We have a budget. We have bipartisan support. We have a destination,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said. “We are just putting finer points on the rocket design.”
But Garver and other administration officials are getting heat from some of the most famous astronauts on the planet, not to mention members of Congress and aerospace industry executives. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and someone never known to be a rabble-rouser, recently co-wrote with fellow Apollo astronauts Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan an op-ed in USA Today declaring that the space policy of the Obama administration is in “substantial disarray.” The astronauts protested the decision to kill the Constellation program, the George W. Bush-era plan for a new lunar mission with new rockets and spacecraft.
Here’s Bob Crippen, who was the pilot of the first shuttle mission, STS-1, back in 1981: “I’ve never seen NASA so screwed up as it is right now. . . . They don’t know where they’re going.”
Even one of NASA’s senior people here at the Kennedy Space Center, Mike Leinbach, the launch director who will supervise the final countdown and launch of Atlantis, has blasted his agency for the lack of direction.
“We’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington, D.C. — both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government,” Leinbach said recently at a news conference here. He said he was “embarrassed” about the lack of guidance.