This week saw the end of the US Space Shuttle programme. Zachary Barker asks where now for America in Space?
The launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on Friday 8th July 2011 was the last launch in the United States’ (US) Space Shuttle programme. The programme has enjoyed a far longer lease of life than expected when the programme was authorised by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Its life has not been without controversy, besides the financial cost two shuttles have been involved in fatal accidents, Challenger 1986 and Columbia in 2003. The end of the space shuttle programme and the dismantling of its infrastructure raises many questions about the National Aeronautical and Space Agency’s (NASA) future.
The Space Shuttle programme was developed amid a widespread debate within NASA about how to advance from the pioneering Apollo launches. The shuttle was built as a compromise between those who called for a carrier vessel to deploy satellites and materials into orbit, and those that wished to advance the agency’s exploration ambitions. Worries about financial cost at inception were hushed by the programmes engineers, assuring congress that the shuttle’s reusability would keep costs down. The reusability feature they stated would allow frequent launches to occur, and thus allow NASA to financially plan these launches more efficiently than the rocket based ones. However the cost efficiency of the programme has long been open to criticism. NASA officially cites the cost for a single shuttle launch around $450 million, while some independent analysts raise the figure to nearly $1.5 billion. Functionally the programme has arguably achieved its goals with a fairly high degree of success. The International Space Station (ISS) resupply missions numerous as they are have been overwhelmingly successful. Exploratory ambitions have been attended to through the Hubble Telescope which was deployed via space shuttle in 1990, and repaired with the assistance of one in 1993.
While the effort to keep the programme within NASA has been enduring, the US public’s interest in space has proven to be less so. While Cold War era public as well as political pressure allowed NASA’s budget to soar to 4.4% of the federal budget in the mid 1960s, priorities as ever in politics change. Since then political and public interest in space has gradually fallen, as has NASA’s budget to 0.5% of the federal budget. A resurgent Republican Party galvanised by the anti-big government Tea Party faction arguably does not have a large interest in increasing public expenditure in NASA, especially with a large national debt to pay off.
US President Barack Obama outlined in his plans for the future of the US in space, to subcontract some of the resupply missions to the ISS to the private sector. Russia will also help to fill the void the space shuttle will leave, by sending their disposable rockets on missions to the ISS as well. In terms of NASA’s future role in space exploration Obama is noticeably vague, in 2010 he spoke about possible manned missions to a nearby asteroid, and possibly a manned flight to Mars in the 2030s. That is assuming that the US’s interest in space exploration endures until then.
While the US’s exploratory interest in space has declined, its strategic interest in space has debatably grown over time. Indeed the US Air Force took an interest early in the Space Shuttle’s development, specifically in its large cargo capacity, ideal for carrying and deploying spy satellites. It is widely acknowledged that the US armed forces maintain a separate space programme. The budget for this is believed by independent analysts to at least have matched that of the civilian programme every year since the early 1980s. Indeed the Air Force’s public space budget is set to increase by 10% next year to reach $8.7 billion. It can only be speculated how much the budget for the secret part of the Air Force’s programme will be next year.
Apart from spy satellites there are other strategic interests surrounding space. In 2007 China caught the world media’s attention with the launch of a rocket that intercepted and destroyed a defunct weather satellite. This was followed by a similar demonstration by a joint effort between the US and the Japanese Defence Force.
Arguably the US people’s lack of interest in space’s application for peaceful purposes will provide a useful void for military minds to fill. The last series of the White House drama The West Wing featured the White House staffer Toby Ziegler risking incarceration by leaking secret information to the media about a ‘military space shuttle’. One has to wonder whether similar actions would have to be taken in the future before the militarisation of space becomes a large public concern. It is obviously a government one. As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1961 “Control of Space means Control of the World”.