A Shuttle By Any Other Name

NASA may, thankfully, be about to make major changes in its vaunted "Space Launch Initiative," known in acronym shorthand as SLI.

A major review of the program scheduled for November has been rescheduled, with no definite new date. Its future is in flux, as policy in space transportation (particularly reusable space transportation) is clearly being rethought.

There are a number of factors that drive this. The current plan is based on the (in my opinion, flawed) doctrine from the Clinton administration that NASA would be responsible for reusable vehicles, and the Air Force would take the lead for expendable ones. But with the shakeup in the military space program being instigated by Don Rumsfeld, the assumptions behind this philosophy, to the degree that they were ever valid, are becoming more dubious by the day.

The Air Force, if it is to exercise the sort of "space control" envisioned by the new Rumsfeld policy recommendations, is going to have to have routine access to space, perhaps with crew aboard. This will only be accomplished (at least economically) with fast-response reusable systems. It is pointless to move forward with SLI in its current form until its relationship with military space activities, currently non-existent, can be resolved.

But the more significant policy revisit is driven by recognition of the fact that the program was incoherent, and directed by space-agency agendas not necessarily congruent with low-cost access.

The original idea of SLI, started in the wake of the disastrous X-33 program, was that NASA would take the lead in developing technology for "next-generation" launch systems. This was code word for new reusable space transportation systems.

More importantly, hijacked by various factions at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, it was really a plan to build a replacement for the current space shuttle, to be developed and operated by NASA, and thus preserve the current empires and fiefdoms that make the present space shuttle so costly and inefficient, and ensuring a continued costly monopoly of manned space by the agency for decades to come.

This agenda is revealed by the wording in popular accounts of the program's purpose, in which the definite article is generally used to describe the desired outcome.

"The next-generation vehicle."

"The 'shuttle II'"

"The shuttle replacement."

Note the implicit assumption--there will be a replacement for the current shuttle and it will be a replacement, not replacements (plural).

In the space community, the question is often asked, "What will the next shuttle look like?" Popular articles about space similarly speculate on the nature of the "next shuttle." The question is often asked "can we get a shuttle to the moon?" (The answer is no).

Clearly, "shuttle" has become synonymous in the minds of many in the public with space vehicle.

In his great work, Analects, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucious wrote that if he was ever asked for wisdom by the government, the first thing he would tell them was that, before he could provide such advice, a rectification of names would be required.

"If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished."

It would be well for the government in general, and NASA in particular, to heed this admonition.

As a humble beginning to such a rectification of names, I hereby propose that we purge the word "shuttle" from our national space vocabulary. As applied to space vehicles, it is a word from a different era. It was an era still in the Cold War, when few could imagine a space program without NASA in charge, when few could imagine free enterprise offering rides into space. It became a symbol of a national space program, one size fits all--a vehicle that could build space stations, resupply space stations, and indeed (as a fallback position, in case the funding didn't come through for space stations in the future) be a space station itself.

Shuttle was dramatically overspecified. Its payload capacity was too large. Its ability to change direction on entry (called cross range), which made its wings much larger than otherwise needed, was dictated not by NASA's requirements, but by the Department of Defense, whose blessing was necessary for program approval. It wasn't just a truck, but a Winnebago, capable of acting as a space hotel and science lab as well as a delivery system. These, among other reasons, are why it is so expensive, and such a policy failure.

Yes, while shuttle is a magnificent technical achievement, it truly is a catastrophic policy failure--a failure made almost tangible, in half-billion-dollar increments each time it flies, a few times a year.

And the failure is not in its design--it is in its requirements, its very philosophy, the very notion that a single system can be all things to all people, or even all things to all parts of our space agency. Anything that replaces the shuttle, in terms of those requirements, will suffer from the same flaws and failures.

We don't need a replacement for the shuttle.

We need a space transportation industry.

It should be like our air transportation industry, or our ground transportation industry, competitive and flexible, to meet the needs of individuals and large corporations, and it should be based on the principles of a market economy--not the wish list of government bureaucrats.

We don't have a "national airplane." We don't have a "national truck," or a "national bus." We have a variety of vehicles, tailored to a variety of markets at variety of prices for different customers and desires.

Three decades ago, with hope in our hearts, fresh from our lunar success, we initiated the first space shuttle program. If we wish a vibrant future in space, one in which thousands of people will venture off the planet in pursuit of their dreams, we should hope, even more, that it's also our last.


I got a goodly bit of email response to last week's rant against expendable launch systems. I responded to those critical of my column at my weblog here and here.

Keep those cards and letters coming...

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.

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