NASA retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011. While remaining an object of fascination and an engineering wonder, the Shuttle required significant maintenance after each flight and did not truly deliver the next major leap forward. The interest in spaceflight too suffered the brunt of tough economic conditions.
So why did the U.S. space agency give up the Space Shuttle despite no alternative launch vehicle?
Not On NASA’s Hands
In a response made on Quora, NASA instructor and flight controller Robert Frost said that NASA does not have sole powers to decide on such matters.
“NASA is an agency of the government. Its direction comes from the government,” Frost said, as reported by Forbes.
Former president George W. Bush initiated the Space Shuttle’s cancellation back in 2004 as part of his Vision for Space Exploration, where its main purpose in the coming years was to “help finish assembly of the International Space Station.” He announced that the Space Shuttle will retire from service in 2010, after three decades of duty.
In that same speech, Bush broached the idea of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle to bring the United States back to the moon and eventually take it to planet Mars. In terms of budget, he said the new endeavors will be fueled by an $11 billion reallocation within NASA’s five-year budget of $86 billion at that time.
Effectively saying no new funds will be provided, Bush added that funding decisions in the future will be “guided by the progress we make in achieving our goals.”
Here’s the situation back then, as outlined by Frost: the Space Shuttle program remained pricey to operate, with the 20-year-old Orbiters getting more expensive to maintain. It would aid in completing the new space lab but would not assist in the new Constellation project that would take astronauts out of low Earth orbit.
Human Resources, Change Of White House Administrations
It’s not just the money, Frost continued. He added that there was “a very limited pool of people” that can provide expertise in operating spaceflight and an even smaller one for manned missions since others had already devoted work to the Space Shuttle and ISS missions. Jumpstarting the Constellation program, he explained, meant transferring manpower, and ISS surely couldn’t give up its people.
It was a sad decision to end the Space Shuttle, but Frost deemed it logical. Building another spacecraft for new missions meant harnessing new technology and entering foreign territory, adding to the fact that Congress did not fund work that would complete the CEV according to schedule.
With the entry of a new U.S. president and Congress, priorities changed again. The Space Shuttle bought time, CEV became Orion and got delayed, and Constellation was called off. The decision: tapping into commercial spaceflight and letting commercial firms pitch in bringing astronauts to and from the ISS.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was brought to life to achieve “safe, reliable, and cost-effective access” to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit, awarding contracts to the likes of SpaceX and Boeing for space taxi services. Both companies, however, discovered that human spaceflight could be more complicated than thought, and they proved to be not ready at the expected time, Frost said.
Since the Space Shuttle program came to a close, NASA has had to rely on purchasing a spot inside the Russian space agency’s Soyuz spacecraft, which launches from Kazakhstan. This capsule has flown American astronauts to the space lab and back on several occasions, including Scott Kelly’s historic return to Earth last March after spending 340 days aboard the ISS.
Prospects For SLS
After bidding goodbye to the Space Shuttle era, the attention is now on next-generation rocketship inspired by the Saturn V era, Eureka Magazine reported.
NASA’s Space Launch System is poised to be the most powerful rocket ever launched, hopefully bringing humanity closer to a return to the moon and stepping into Mars, but how long will it take for this to come to fruition?
“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date and will be ready no later than November 2018,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the human explorations and operations mission directorate at NASA.
For its maiden flight test, the SLS will be configured for a 70-ton lift capacity and carry the unmanned Orion crew module beyond low-Earth orbit, but in its most powerful configuration, the SLS will offer a lift capability of 130 tons and push missions farther into the solar system, including the moon, asteroids, and even the Red Planet.
How NASA, in a post-Space Shuttle era, will shoot for the moon and beyond in coming years remains to be seen.