Spaceflight Now

U.S. must rely upon the Russians for access to space
Posted: July 6, 2011

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But reliance on NASA's former Cold War rival has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow for many at NASA, forced to retire the most sophisticated manned spacecraft ever built before a U.S. replacement is available. Equally devastating, in the eyes of many, is the loss of manned spaceflight experience as thousands of highly skilled aerospace jobs are eliminated.

A Soyuz rocket launches three-man crew to the space station. Credit: NASA
"We are going to miss it," former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, architect of the Bush administration's moon program, said of the shuttle program. "I was, as administrator, supportive of and willing to retire the shuttle in favor of a new and better system that would take us back to the moon and even beyond, but I'm not willing to retire the shuttle in favor of nothing. That, to me, doesn't seem like good national policy."

In the near term, "we're going to have a reverse brain drain," he told CBS News. "It used to be that people came from other places and other industries to work in the space program because of what it meant and what it was. And as it goes away, we're going to lose those people because talented folks go where there are tough problems. And that's not going to be good for the country."

NASA's current administrator, former shuttle commander Charles Bolden, believes the new approach, unlike the Constellation moon program, is sustainable and the right path forward in an era of tight budgets and more limited horizons.

"Some say that our final shuttle mission will mark the end of America's 50 years of dominance in human spaceflight," Bolden said in a recent speech. "As a former astronaut and the current NASA administrator, I want to tell you that American leadership in space will continue for at least the next half-century because we have laid the foundation for success -- and here at NASA, failure is not an option."

The man who made that last line famous, in the movie "Apollo 13" if not in reality, was Gene Kranz, the legendary fight director who helped guide Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969, who orchestrated the Apollo 13 rescue and who ran mission operations during the early years of the shuttle program.

"The challenge of space is not in building the space systems, it is in building the space team," Kranz told CBS News in an email exchange. "With the termination of shuttle operations the NASA and contractor work force that took a decade to build and mature is being destroyed. Now, with inept national and space leadership, we stand with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Our nation has surrendered the high ground that the NASA space team captured July 20, 1969."

Kranz's sentiments reflect a widely held belief among Apollo veterans that NASA's new marching orders are a step back. In an open letter to the president, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan said America is on the verge of giving up its leadership in space.

"For the United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature," they wrote. "While the president's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

"Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the U.S. is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal."

PART 4: Dismantling remaining shuttle team looms -->