It's Time To Retire The Shuttle

By John M. Logsdon
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Among the many tough decisions facing the next president is the future of our civilian space program. There are conflicts over how long to fly the space shuttle, which are linked to questions about continued American access to the international space station -- built at the cost of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars -- and whether U.S. astronauts will return to the moon before 2020.

The premiere this week of the PBS "Nova" documentary "Space Shuttle Disaster" brings many of these questions to the fore. The 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board, of which I was a member, concluded that the United States should "replace the shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit." In practical terms, lacking any U.S.-created alternative, retiring the shuttle would mean relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the space station for at least four years. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has described U.S. dependence on Russia for transportation to space as "unseemly." Indeed it is, but it is preferable to continuing to fly the shuttle past 2010. Another accident could delay or even end the U.S. program of human spaceflight.

This choice is made more complex by renewed Russian assertiveness, as demonstrated by its incursion into disputed Georgian territory in August. A decision not to use Soyuz could increase tensions in other areas of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Should altering American plans to depend on the Soyuz spacecraft be one of the ways in which the U.S. government shows its disapproval of Russian actions?

I think not. The United States would benefit from working to maintain the positive space relationship that has evolved between our two countries, particularly over the past 15 years. Pressure has recently been mounting on NASA to fly the shuttle beyond 2010, but I see no compelling reason to go against the judgment of the Columbia board. Yes, NASA has made many improvements in the shuttle since the accident with Columbia. But the shuttle remains a very risky vehicle.

NASA estimates the probability of losing the crew on any single shuttle mission as one in 80. The chances for disaster if 10 additional shuttle flights are scheduled between 2011 and 2015 are simply too high. Losing another crew would probably result in a multiyear delay in the U.S. human spaceflight program and undercut plans for resuming exploration beyond Earth's orbit.

Beginning next year, the international space station will have a six-person crew that must be able to exit immediately as a safety measure. Two Soyuz spacecraft, which each carry three people, need to be in place at the space station at all times. The shuttle, never designed for long stays in space, is not able to stay at the space station longer than a few weeks at a time; this rules it out as a viable rescue option.

The shuttle is also very expensive to operate; this year's shuttle budget is close to $3 billion. If the United States continues to spend that money on flying the shuttle beyond 2010, it will take even longer to develop a replacement vehicle, further delaying U.S. plans to venture beyond low Earth orbit.

The prudent choice here is to get on with current plans, which call for a U.S.-led international effort to return to the moon and then prepare for voyages to Mars. This is a smarter and more forward-looking decision than continuing to operate a costly, flawed system. The space shuttle is a remarkable technological achievement, but replacing it soon is the best path to the future. We should not let false pride or international tensions get in the way of an intelligent approach to exploring the final frontier.

The writer, who was featured in the "Nova" documentary "Space Shuttle Disaster," holds the Lindbergh chair in aerospace history at the National Air and Space Museum and was formerly director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Smithsonian Institution.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company