Friday, April 4, 2008

Space Coast, Coast to Coast

Joel Raupe
The Orlando Sentinel, ("the Houston Chronicle of America's Space Coast"), easily the loudest voice of the Kennedy Space Center community, admits in an editorial today that central Florida may be the area most affected by NASA's projections of personnel scale-backs during the impending "Gap."

"It's painful but it's inevitable," the Sentinel concludes. "The Space Coast needs to start adapting now to a future without the shuttle."

That nasty "Gap," despite the early pronouncements and "best practices" of NASA administrator Mike Griffin, may turn out to be the longest period between U.S. manned spaceflights in thirty years, and may end up surpassing the interminably long period between Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 and the maiden flight of Columbia in 1981.

An economy like that surrounding Orlando, which easily saw through past Gaps with a robust and diverse economy, can afford to shed only a passing tear at the dismantling of Shuttle infrastructure, just off the Cocoa Beach mainland.

A lot of ink will be spilled in the election-year budget fight before the beginning of FY'09 in October, so it is difficult to tell the feinting oblique from the hail Mary pass, but, down deep, the consensus is NASA's problem is not any lack of Vision, but of funding.

Just "retiring" the Space Shuttle by 2010 will cost $500 million. In whatever form it finally takes, Constellation will not carry astronauts into space, NASA says, until 2015, and then, it is planned, service the International Space Station, which was not a part of the Vision until Griffin came on the scene, practical though it might be.

Is the Gap as true an opportunity for Commercial Space that it seems to be, or is a true and trustworthy Era of Globalistic Good Feelings underway? "Gap" or no gap, the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Japan, and elsewhere, is recruiting astronauts.

Contemplating previous Gaps in sustained American manned spaceflight is little help, apparently, because history can only tell us the 2015 plan has to be too optimistic.

Columbia's first roaring off of pad 39A in 1981 became a familiar, and then mistakenly believed to be "routine," sight for proud Americans over nearly three decades, but fated Columbia hardly resembled the Reusable Vision worked up by NASA, Congress and President Nixon when they stupidly dismantled Apollo.

NASA built the Shuttle cargo bay around the dimensions of Hubble, and both were originally to fly in time for America's Bicentennial in 1976. Shuttle was six years late for the party and nearsighted Hubble missed the parade by a decade and a half.

The Apollo-Skylab to Shuttle "Gap," the longest yet and lasting from 1975 to 1981 is the only similar Gap comparable with the wide chasm ahead of us between Shuttle and Constellation. The Orlando Sentinel editorial board would have us accept, gracefully, that the United States is deliberately entering too long a period of planned dependence on "partners," for a ride to an elaborate and finally nearly completed Space Station (which is yet another important object lesson in this story) primarily funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Not once in its history has NASA met a long-term scheduled benchmark year. With Apollo, NASA met the decade, but American federal spending is not really built around long-term planning. It is therefore seemingly and wildly optimistic to believe NASA's preparation for a five-year Gap, and especially one that is excused by a shared hallucination called "pay-as-you-go."

Gearing up for Constellation has already taken on the political football-like status that was characteristic of the long and exasperating debate over the Shuttle's size and scope that happened between 1972 and the mated flights and drop-tests of Enterprise OV-101 in 1977.

(Those drop tests were a stroke of necessary genius on NASA's part because the Shuttle afterwards took on form in the public imagination for the first time, and the Shuttle's profile became an icon four full years before it flew. )

Though the mock-up Orbiter had been under-going vibration testing, it was not until a wider public caught that first breathtaking sight of the mated Shuttle and 747 that political will began to shift away from endless reconfigurations and allowed NASA to move along with what little it had left of its original purpose.

It may be that the longest "Gap" in spacecraft sustainability will end up being the most dreary of one of all, as dry as a lunar day, between the splashdown of Apollo 17 in December 1972 and the lift-0ff of what is obviously Apollo's natural descendants in Orion and Altair.

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