Monday, September 08, 2008

Get Ready For The Gap

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is frustrated, and who can blame him. 

The shuttle is supposed to be retired in 2010, but its replacement will not be available until at least 2015 and that's probably optimistic.  During this five year gap, the US will be dependent on Russia for access to the space station.  Aproval to buy rides from the Russians requires Congress to grant an exception to INKSNA (the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-Proliferation Act). Given recent Russian actions, it's unlikely that Congress will grant another exemption when the current agreement expires in 2011.

Unless a company like SpaceX can provide commercial service to the space station, we'll find ourselves sitting on the ground while Russia and China are flying.  Although I'm rootin' for SpaceX and other such ventures, it's unlikely they'll be availible in time to close the gap.

So, we're looking at American astronauts being grounded for half a decade or more. To address this, many in Congress are pushing to extend the life of the Shuttle for another 10 missions, at the rate of two per year, to get us through The Gap.

There are two major problems with this approach.  First, NASA estimates that flying ten additional missions would push the risk of losing a Shuttle and crew to one out of eight.  Second, extending the life of the Shuttle would not eliminate the gap, only move it forward, because there is not enough funding to both operate the Shuttle AND design its replacement.  Essentially, they can't do much work on the Constellation program until funds are freed up by the Shuttle's retirement.  The only way The Gap can be reduced or eliminated is to increase NASA's budget so it can operate the Shuttle and develop it's replacement AT THE SAME TIME.

In a leaked e-mail, Michael Griffin said 
"In a rational world, we would have been allowed to pick a Shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than "not later than 2014") and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so."

One of Griffin's faults is that he constantly seems surprised that we don't live in a rational world. His speeches argue the technical merits of his choices, and are often brilliantly concise and logical. He's probably the closest thing to a Vulcan NASA's ever seen. Unfortunately his emotionless style didn't convey how serious a threat the situation was becoming. Of course the US won't collapse just because we're not flying astronauts, but it will send a powerful message to our competitors and our enemies that the United States is not what it once was (as if they needed another example).

With yesterday's news of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac takeover, there's almost no chance of additional money going to NASA, so we'll either fly the Shuttle and hope it doesn't kill more of our finest, or just ride our The Gap and take our medicine.

It's going to be a bitter pill to swallow.

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