I’ve been offline for most of the past week with DSL issues, so didn’t get to see any of the coverage of the final Shuttle launch until this afternoon. Haven’t yet found the ET “death camera” footage (though someone at a wedding I attended yesterday mentioned having seen it), but here’s the normal launch-through-sep version from Friday’s launch.
I did, however, catch a bit of commentary on the radio while running errands Friday afternoon. Not sure what show it was (didn’t recognize the host — name was something like “Joe Pax”), but I tuned in just in time to hear a rant about how the end of the Shuttle program without a replacement on hand was a national tragedy, and that it came about because Obama cancelled Bush’s space policy only because it was Bush’s space policy.
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
The “national tragedy” bit simply repeated the received (un)wisdom that the end of Shuttle = end of US manned space exploration. Not so — NASA civil servant astronauts will still be flying to the predominantly-US International Space Station for the foreseeable future, albeit via the Russian Soyuz. New domestically-built and -launched spacecraft are a couple years out, so yes, we won’t be able to send NASA astronauts up on American-made vehicles for a while, but that does not equate to the end of an American presence in space. This part, though, I can understand — if someone hasn’t been following post-Columbia space policy, it may seem as though we are simply shutting down the manned side of NASA and giving up on space.
The worse flaw in his argument is the assertion (very strongly and unambiguously made by the host) that Obama cancelled the policy because it was Bush’s. This is utter bullshit, which a few minutes of research would have revealed as such. The policy that Obama cancelled (in part) was Mike Griffin’s, not George W. Bush’s. (While it’s true that Griffin reported to Bush who was in turn ultimately responsible, Constellation was unquestionably Griffin’s ill-begotten baby.) Bush gave us the broad policy of the VSE, which was later hijacked at the implementation level by Mike Griffin for his own vanity projects — the crowning glory of which was his Ares I launcher.
Griffin’s Constellation architecture is what was largely cancelled in February 2010, and with good reason — it was ill-conceived, over-sold, over-budget, under-performing, and behind schedule (more on that last in a moment). Obama’s cancellation of Griffin’s program was arguably the only good thing the man has accomplished as President, and it was done not out of spite for his predecessor (which I admittedly wouldn’t put beyond him), but because of the aforementioned problems.
And this brings us to the “gap” in American manned access to space, which was the inspiration for the rant. Had it not been for Griffin’s Ares-based Constellation architecture and its follow-on effects on the design of Orion, Orion might well have been ready to fly by now, or at the least with a minimal “gap” between Shuttle flyout and Orion IOC. Constant redesigns of Ares I and trouble meeting its performance goals meant redesigns and ultimately the stripping down of Orion, which in turn led to schedule slips with the latter. Had Orion (whether in in the original lifting-body form or the Griffin-mandated capsule form) been directed to fly on an EELV — in-production rockets with known performance characteristics and much more benign flight environments — a good portion of its development schedule slip could have been avoided. Which means we would have had little if any “gap” to cause radio talk show hosts consternation, nor reason for said hosts to suspect partisan motivations behind a necessary shift in space policy.
To be fair, when I came back to the program about fifteen minutes later, the host was admitting (apparently at the prompting of a caller I had missed in the meantime) that the shift to a more commercial orientation for manned access to space was a welcome development. But rather than rethink his earlier foolishness, he stuck to his guns and (incredibly, for a supposedly right-wing, pro-business, free-markets type of host) expressed doubt that commercial providers could ever fill that role. Which is disappointing — if people who are supposed to favor private enterprise allow their “national greatness” emotional priorities take precedence over letting a new industry take root, who will defend the new industry against those who don’t favor private enterprise?