I need to preface this article with a disclosure. In the 1980s, I was a cooperative engineer with NASA at the Johnson Space center. After graduating with a degree in Aerospace Engineering, I got a job with one of the companies supporting NASA. I supported both the Space Station and Space Shuttle programs for a total of 12 years. I personally know many of the astronauts, some retired, some still flying missions. In 1995, I transferred within my company, both for career opportunity and finding a safer place to raise my children.

With this in mind, my reaction to the plan to ground the Space Shuttle fleet with no replacement is somewhere between saddened and irate. We, the United States of America, the only country to have walked on the moon, are going to be dependent on the former Soviet Union to have a manned presence in space. What is most annoying is the path that we took to get to this state.

I worked directly on the Space Station plan that was presented to Casper Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan. This plan eventually became know as Space Station Freedom. Through a series of congressional mandates, the cost of this plan grew from 8 Billion dollars to 16 Billion dollars. These mandates included; include our NATO partners, increase the content from Canada and Japan, include Russia, reduce the cost to our European allies, spread the construction to more states, increase the scale and finally, explain the cost inflation.

My frustration with this chain of events is that the administrators at NASA could not speak the truth in front of congress. The reason the cost grew as much as they did was because of congress changing the rules on an annual basis. Sure there was some scope creep due to the complexity of the mission, but a majority of the costs came from redirection. If the NASA administrators had challenged congress, they would have lost funding.

As all of this was going on, the idea that the shuttle fleet was aging and need replace was ignored. The shuttles were planned to last 25 years with 100 missions each. The original fleet was planned to be 4 shuttles, this was accomplished by using Challenger which was not the 1970s plan. We have built 5 flying shuttles, which should equate to 500 missions. The fifth shuttle was delivered in 1990 (first flight 1992) which should have equated to an end of service of 2015. Of course by this 25 year standard, only Endeavor should still be flying today.

NASA never achieved the 4 flights per year per vehicle. The cost performance was also never met. They did exceed the 50 flights before an accident predicted in the early 1970. But beyond these measures, NASA also did not succeed in getting approval for planned replacement, and now the fleet is retiring with no follow on in the near future.

We now have a future where our astronauts are lifted to space in 1960 technology from our former opponent in the space race. A future where a NASA administrator has to say that cutting the budget and removing missions helps the agency to grow and achieve their goals.

There was a time when the United States space program was the cutting edge of technology. As the years passed and the building filled with regulations, that cutting edge was left behind. NASA now used developed technology rather than driving technology. This may be lower risk, but with that comes lower achievement and eventually complacency. Where once men were walking on the moon, now we sit and watch launch pads molder. I wasn’t even there during the hay day. My tenure seems to have been the beginning of the end.

Many will say that depleting our manned space effort will save budget. As a fiscal conservative, I should agree. The pay back on this investment has been so great that I must disagree. The NASA budget is less each year than what the Defense Department “looses”. It is appalling to me that as a nation, we can approve of $1 trillion to bail out failed businesses, with no return, but we cannot find $1 billion to fund an agency that develops and proves technologies that employ hundreds of thousands nation wide. I must ask, where are our priorities? How did we get to this place? I certainly hope that my grand children can watch our nation achieve as I did when I was young. I fear that they will not believe me when I tell them I saw men walking on the moon.

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Martin writes about writing in his weekly column Ramblings from Martin.

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