Mark over at Curmudgeon’s Corner links to an interesting New Atlantis article (about NASA’s current budget situation) that I actually agree with quite a bit of. The basic gist of the article was that NASA is really going to keep struggling financially if they try to keep the Shuttle going till 2010, while trying to field the CEV. The problem being that the Shuttle program gobbles up $3-4B per year even if it doesn’t fly, while the VSE related projects are going to also be sucking up $3-4B per year over the next few years.
Their suggestion is to end the Shuttle program now. They make a good case that in order to finish the ISS before 2010, Shuttle is going to have to fly something like 16 more missions (and even that is predicated on a redefinition of “complete”), and with the continuing foam problems, any delays makes that number more and more unrealistic, and potentially even dangerous. Trying to rush shuttle flights in order to meet the deadline is just begging for trouble, with how complex, old, and fragile the shuttles really are. If we get to 2010, and have only managed to fly 4 or 5 more flights, will it have been worth the extra $20B? Is the probable number of succesful flights we can complete by then worth the cost? I really don’t think so.
Jim Muncy (who I respect a whole bunch) has argued that without finishing the station, the justification for the COTS program will be undermined, but I’m not sure how valid that argument really is. If 4 years from now the space station is only a little more completed, and $20B more money has been flushed down the hole, will COTS really be all that better off? In all the desparate attempts to scrape together enough money to fund two bloated MegaProjects at the same time (CEV/CLV and Shuttle), COTS may actually be at more risk of being defunded if we keep the Shuttle around than if we don’t.
There have also been worries expressed about “workforce issues” by many congresscritters. Basically, they don’t want to shut the Shuttle down early because that would end a bunch of lucrative tax-payer subsidized nerd-welfare jobs in their districts. They’re worried that if they let all those people go now, they won’t be able to have the manpower they need to run the CLV and CaLV programs when they gear up (now wouldn’t that be a cryin shame?). But the article makes a really good point about this. There is a planned 2-4 year gap between when the shuttle is retired and when the first CEV/CLV start anyway, and in order to keep the workforce around, we’d need to keep paying their salary over that time. Does NASA really intend to keep paying $1-3B in salaries and infrastructure upkeep costs over that whole timeframe just to keep people around? When you add the fact that even NASA is realizing that most of the Shuttle derived hardware was a bad idea, you wonder why they need to keep so many people around. How many shuttle employees have any more experience with ablative heat shields or RS-68s than your average high-school graduate? The only thing left in NASA’s architecture that is even remotely shuttle derived is the SRBs on the Shaft and the Longfellow, and even those are substantially different from the ones flying on the Shuttle right now.
So, I have to agree with Mark and New Scientist that there’s a really good case for just killing the shuttle here and now. I’ll go into some thoughts later about how I think we ought to handle issues related to our ISS commitments in light of retiring the shuttle, but I think this post is long enough for now.