WHAT IF, IN the midst of the epic contest to explore and colonize the New World, Britain--the greatest seafaring power of its day--had to mothball its naval fleet and rely on other countries to transport British men and material across the oceans?
This much we know: With British subjects, ideas, and goods tethered to a little island off the coast of Europe, Britain and the world would be very different today.
Something not too dissimilar is about to happen in the heavens, as the United States prepares to retire its fleet of space shuttles. For almost 30 years, the venerable, if imperfect, space plane has been America's workhorse in space, carrying astronauts, scientific experiments, and satellites into orbit, painstakingly building the International Space Station, and just as important, reviving America's self-confidence and reinforcing America's image as a pioneering nation. But by 2010, with the fleet grounded due to budget, age, and safety concerns, America will have no way of delivering its own astronauts into space. The hiatus could last almost 5 years.
America and the world--and space--could be very different by then.
NASA IS RETIRING the remaining shuttles--Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis--in order to make way for the Constellation program, which includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and Ares I and V rockets. The Constellation program will incorporate "the best aspects of the Apollo and Shuttle systems," according to NASA. AS the Government Accountability Office explains, "NASA is counting on the retirement of the Shuttle to free up resources to pursue a new generation of space flight vehicles."
The problem is this: Those next-generation vehicles won't be ready until 2015. That leaves a significant gap between the last shuttle flight and first CEV flight--a gap that could strain or even undermine American international standing.
How will we bridge that gap? The alternatives are grim, so grim that the best option appears to be purchasing "crew and cargo transport services from Russia and our international partners," in the worrisome words of one NASA official. As Michael Griffin, NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, observed in 2008, "It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that."
His words were prescient, as became clear during Russia's blitzkrieg battering of--and slow-motion, scorched-earth withdrawal from--Georgia. Griffin told the International Herald Tribune that he ordered NASA to explore contingency plans for using the shuttle beyond 2010 "about 5 minutes after the Russians invaded Georgia." Griffin wasn't alone. During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama voiced support for extending shuttle flights, calling on NASA to "take no further action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly the Shuttle beyond 2010."
Obama got a little wiggle room late last year, when Congress passed a measure that pays for an extra shuttle flight and for costs associated with delaying the planned retirement of the fleet. The delay could be expensive. According to estimates cited by the Orlando Sentinel, flying the shuttle beyond 2010 could cost some $4 billion per year. And because building new spaceships and retiring old ones is not like flipping a light switch, it is going to be very difficult to close the gap completely.
The post-shuttle gap "is essentially unfixable now," according to Griffin. This is due to the transfer of personnel and resources to the post-shuttle program, the end of contracts, and the conversion of systems and facilities. It's no wonder that the GAO has identified the shuttle's status as one of its 13 "urgent issues" for the new administration. Obama's first budget calls for following through on plans to retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010, allowing for the possible addition of just one extra shuttle mission. …