The NASA strategy for the Strategic Launch Initiative is becoming more clear.
They have recognized the folly of building a single-purpose crew rescue vehicle.
They have similarly recognized that they shouldn't make the same mistake that they made 30 years ago, in building a single, follow-on "one-size-fits-all" space shuttle.
Unfortunately, they still seem focused on the immediate goal of getting useful value out of our multi-decabillion-dollar space station, that is currently providing little bang for the taxpayers' buck. This is partly due to the fact that the purpose of the space station has, from its inception, ostensibly been for science, which is a difficult case to make as a justification for a program that is going to cost many tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.
There is an old saying in the investment community (and even among ordinary consumers) about the folly of "throwing good money after bad."
Like many old sayings, there's at least a grain of truth to it.
It's natural to want to make the best of any investment. And the greater the investment, the stronger the desire to get some utility out of it, no matter how great a white elephant it's become.
That's where we are with our current manned space program. The investment there is over many years, and in terms of dollars, as already described, it is immense and almost incomprehensible to a homeowner who has to pay a mortgage and other bills of thousands of dollars a month.
The apparent immediate goal of the Bush administration is to satisfy the international partners' desire to get the International Space Station to the state promised to them (i.e., more than three crew members). The crew size is currently limited, at least officially, by the ability to evacuate them in an emergency, which means that they are currently restricted to the three crew that could be returned to earth via a single Soyuz module.
While they recognize that building a larger return vehicle solely for rescue purposes would be a waste of money, they've decided that the same vehicle might be worth building if it could play a role in replacing the costly shuttle sometime in the future.
Accordingly, they've redirected funds from the Space Launch Initiative, originally planned to replace the current shuttle with "shuttle II," toward building such a crew-delivery/return replacement, that will be launched on top of an expendable rocket, despite the high cost and reliability issues of such a scheme.
But why are they doing this?
Three decades ago, the nation made a decision to build a space shuttle that would ostensibly provide cheap reusable transportation to and from orbit.
Almost two decades ago, a decision was made to build a space station, using that space shuttle for the construction and support of it in operations.
All of our current civil space policy is contingent on those decisions.
In 1972, we could have made a different decision in terms of the future of the nation's space transportation system, but we decided to build a single, one-size-fits-all launch system.
A dozen years later, because we had that launch system (though it hadn't lived up to its original promises), the nation decided to build a space station with it.
This was the first attempt to throw good money after bad. A much more sensible approach would have been to recognize that the shuttle hadn't turned out the way that NASA planned, in terms of flight rate, and that the better part of valor would be to base a space-station design on a more cost-effective space transportation concept. But to do so would have been an admission that the shuttle hadn't lived up to its stated goals, and was thus a failure. This is unthinkable to any bureaucracy except under extreme duress, so this was not a politically-viable option.
Now, having built a horrendously-expensive and marginally-useful space station as a result of that decision, we are confronted with another one. Where do we go from here?
We've spent many tens of billions of dollars on this facility. It can support three crew persons(under the current, and in my opinion overly-stringent, ground rules that they must all be able to evacuate to the earth at any time). To simply double that amount, we must invest many billions more, following those same groundrules.
I understand the rationale behind the current decision to build such a limited-use vehicle. We are politically constrained by our past decisions. But more importantly, we are politically constrained by our limits in vision, and our lack of any real goals in space, other than justifying decisions that have come before. That is where the concept of "throwing good money after bad" becomes applicable.
There was another way in 1972, and there is another way now. But in order to seize the day, we must answer a more fundamental question.
What are we trying to accomplish in space?
If it is to simply preserve the status quo, and maintain a minimal space jobs base in Houston and Hunstville and Florida, then the administration is making a good decision.
If, on the other hand, the goal is to make our nation not merely pre-eminent, but to open up the new frontier and make us a true space-faring nation, one in which we can all achieve our dreams of new frontiers, then it is simply postponing the real decisions.
To do that, we must unleash the power of our country's entrepreneurial spirit, and harness the forces of both idealism and greed that drove our ancestors across the prairies and mountains to forge a new nation.
But in order to decide which route to take, we have to have a national debate, one that we haven't had since the late 1950s. In the midst of a very real threat from fascist Islamism, it's a difficult subject to think about. But we are on the verge of another national election in which we will select those who will be making such decisions. As always, it is not an issue on which any significant number of people will vote.
But perhaps one of the reasons is that no one ever even raises it as an issue. After all, it consumes less than one percent of the federal budget.
But until we do, we may continue to throw good money after bad.
I replied at my weblog
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.