NASA has been on a path since the loss of the space shuttle Columbia that should come to a close in the coming year, this year should mark the end of the shuttle program and the beginning of the Constellation program – the program that should lead NASA back into the exploration business. Some call it the wrong path; others want this path to change to the path they want our civil space program to head on. One thing is for certain – this will be a pivotal year for our space program.
The space shuttle program began in the late 60s and was proposed as a low-cost way to space that would see 50 launches a year. Since the first flight in 1981, there have been some 130 flights, a far cry from the approximately 1400 flights that should have taken place by this initial estimate. The Space Transportation System or ‘STS’ as it is more commonly known was also to be far cheaper than the estimated $60 million it costs for each flight. Most important of all, it was expected to be far safer than it has turned out to be.
In the late 1960s and early 70s NASA flew numerous successful flights to the moon, six of which landed. Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12, stated something along the lines of, “we quit just when we were getting good at it.” The problem with the rocket that the astronauts who flew to the moon had was that almost of all of it was thrown away – a problem the shuttle was supposed to address.
When given the Vision for Space Exploration or ‘VSE’ as it is known in space circles, NASA wanted the best of both worlds, the proven reliability of the Saturn V with the reusable nature of the shuttle. And they wanted to do all of this on a budget. So they sat down and for all intents and purposes merged the shuttle and Saturn V systems. It is called using ‘legacy’ hardware. The shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, (SRBs) and elements of the shuttle’s external tank are utilized within the Ares family of rockets. Also incorporated within the current configuration of the Ares V are engine systems descended from the mighty Saturn family of rockets.
The year when NASA has been directed to end the shuttle and return to exploration is a few days away. President Obama has stated that he will give his decision as to where NASA will head in the spring. Early signs appear to hint at a plan that will be similar to the original VSE with perhaps an additional shuttle flight which would extend the shuttle program into 2011, but only time will tell. Either way, this year will mark a turning point in how NASA operates.
For those Americans that have not taken the opportunity to see the space shuttle launch – no more excuses – go and see one now. As a word of advice, as historic as it will be, avoid the final flight of the shuttle, or at least schedule to be in the area for a few days – traffic post-launch is incredibly bad.