Most Americans have strong memories of some aspect of the space shuttle program. Whether it was the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia accidents or some of the more positive highlights of the space shuttle era, the shuttle has defined the last 30 years of America’s space program. As we prepare for the final shuttle flight, there is still argument about whether America’s temporary lack of manned space flight capabilities will relegate our country to a backseat role in space exploration. It seems everyone has an opinion about retiring the space shuttles, but want do the real experts think?
To find out, I spent some time talking about the end of the shuttle era and the future of space exploration with George Whitesides for a four-part series for Yahoo! News. Whitesides has served as NASA’s chief of staff, and he is currently the CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, the private company founded by Sir Richard Branson to offer commercial tourist flights into space.
As a former chief of staff of NASA until just last year, you must have been directly involved in the discussions to bring the space shuttle to a close.
Yes, to a certain extent, but keep in mind that the decision to retire the shuttle was made before my time in 2005, before my time, under the Bush administration. So, I was involved, but honestly, by the time I got there in 2008, or 2009 formally, it was mostly just sort of carrying out this task that the agency had been on for several years.
In your opinion, is this the right time to retire the shuttles or do they have more legs left in them?
I think it is the right time. Transitioning between space flight systems has always been challenging for NASA. This is the [second] major transition that NASA has made. The first one was between the Saturns and the shuttle and now the second is this one… second transition to a third transportation system. It’s a challenge. It was a challenge going between the Saturns and the shuttle; there was a period of, I forget the number, six years, maybe more, between the last Saturn and the first shuttle. You know, it will be a challenge this time, but I think the agency is strong and more importantly, I absolutely believe this is the right policy for the country.
A former Rockwell staffer who worked on the space shuttle told me in an interview that one of the drawbacks of long-lived, reusable vehicles, like the shuttle, is that, for the most part, they are flying on 1970s technology. Even the computers and software being used on the shuttle are not even as powerful as an iPhone. Is that a fair characterization?
Well, keep in mind that the shuttles were designed in the 60s and 70s, so some of the technology is even earlier than the 70s. They have been upgraded in many respects over the years. You can probably find things that are relatively new and things that date back to the 60s.
The biggest challenge is that NASA has found that in order to fly them as safely as possible, it requires an enormous amount of labor, resulting in a system that is still with some risk. I think the hope is that the next generation of American space flight vehicles, emphasis on the plural, will be safer, but also more affordable, whether they are integrating more recent reusable technologies or just the fundamental architecture is lower cost. So, I think those are the challenges that we have to face and tackle with the next generation of vehicles.
As we phase out the shuttles and have a few years of lesser capability for launching at least human payloads, do you see the U.S. losing its leadership position in space with China coming on, and the Russians maintaining that capability?
Not really. I mean we are still, undoubtedly, the international leader in space. It’s not like the International Space Station is going anywhere, and we are the lead agency when it comes to the ISS, which is the foremost human space flight program. So, I think we’ll still be leading the world in that area. When you look at any other metric, whether it’s space science, national security space [the United States is still the leader].
I think one of the interesting impacts is that we may, under the new policies, start to recapture some of the commercial space leadership which we’ve lost over the last decade or two. If you look at the percentage of international commercial launch market that the U.S. possesses, over the last 15 years it’s gone from a majority — and I don’t know exactly what it is — to a minority.
That’s because U.S. launch manufacturers have been more expensive than elsewhere in the world, less responsive, and less capable. Which is not to say that they’re bad. It’s just that they’ve been focused on other things. You know, they’ve been focused on national security launches or other things, but what I think is exciting is that you have some new entrants now that are already increasing the U.S. share of the global marketplace and I think that completion will also impact some other domestic providers. So that’s really the key to this new policy: to try to create an environment in which there are competitive U.S. launch providers. In certain respects we may be increasing our leadership.
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Brad Sylvester writes about the space program for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Watching the Apollo missions through the static on a small black and white television sparked a lifelong interest in the space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe.