Nasa adrift in post-shuttle malaise

The US programme is subject to the economic and political whims of a country that once romanticised space exploration before turning it into a series of mundane errands.

If you blinked much over the past week, you probably missed it, tucked away as it was in the "and finally" segments of news programmes. Out trooped another seven anonymous astronauts in their bright-orange launch-and-entry suits, grinning and waving for any photographers Nasa could persuade to come down to Florida, and, at 6.21am local time on Monday, up went yet another shuttle mission from Kennedy Space Center, bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

In case you have lost count, Discovery's flight was the 131st mission since the first space shuttle took off for a two-day systems test flight on April 12 1981, 29 years ago this Monday, and the 33rd to the ISS. There will be just three more shuttle flights, one each for Atlantis and Endeavour before the three surviving relics are grounded for good after Discovery's last flight, scheduled for September 16.

If you want one, give Nasa a call - it's staging a distress sale. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum has claimed Discovery, but in January the agency reportedly reduced the price on the other two from US$42 million (Dh154m) to US$28m. The fuel consumption, of course, is terrible. Flight STS-131 (the shuttle programme was originally called the Space Transportation System) attracted a certain amount of coverage by virtue of the fact that three of its crew were women and, when they were united on Thursday with the one woman already on board the space station, a record was set for the number of women in space at any one time.

Yet who could name any of them or, come to that, who outside Nasa or its associated science and technical partnerships could say what they were doing up there? And, if all goes to plan, who knows what others like them will be doing in the permanently occupied ISS for up to 180 days at a time, until it too is scrapped, possibly in 2015, probably in 2020? As of Monday, since April 12, 1961, the day Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, 523 people from 35 countries have been in space, although of these, only 24 have ventured beyond low-Earth orbit and only a dozen have set foot on the Moon.

Inevitably, in the nearly half a century since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, John Glenn orbited the Earth and President Kennedy told the world that an American was going to stand on the Moon, space exploration has become commonplace and, well, down to earth. For the record, the seven-person crew on board STS-31 are on a 13-day mission to deliver eight tons of supplies to the crew of six, from several countries, who comprise the 23rd expedition to the Space Station, on which work began in 1998.

Whipping along at 28,000kph, approximately 380km above the Earth, the ISS, 50m long by 73m wide, weighing 197 tons and with a solar array bigger than the wingspan of a Boeing 777, is the largest spacecraft mankind has yet built. That said, its living space is about the same size as a three-bedroom house. One of the tasks of the shuttle crew this week has been to replace an external ammonia tank, part of the station's cooling system. In other words, Nasa has spent an estimated US$450 million on a plumbing call-out to an overcrowded semi-detached house that is a four days' drive away.

Either way you look at it, this lacks the glamour of Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind. What is the Space Station for? It is essentially a gravity-free lab where experiments and stuff can be done that cannot be done on Earth. It is, says Nasa, "a human outpost in space bringing nations together for the benefit of life on Earth ? to advance the exploration of the solar system and enable commerce in space".

Yet in October, Nasa released the findings of a review by its Human Spaceflight Plans Committee that, according to, "suggested scientists have seen only a small amount of science being produced on the orbital outpost". Nasa promptly moved to counter the suggestion, releasing a lengthy report itemising 138 major experiments that had been carried out. Whether or not the ISS has served any point, beyond uniting disparate members of nations that remain standoffish on Earth, earthbound taxpayers have been taking space for granted for years, despite horrific reminders that every flight represents a huge risk. When the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger took off on January 28 1986, few people were watching - indeed, few television news channels covered the launch live. Unfortunately, as it turned out 73 seconds into the flight, among those who were watching were thousands of children, thanks to a special Nasa feed into schools around the country to celebrate the flight of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.

Bad news, however, travels fast. According to one study, while only 17 per cent of people in the US followed live coverage of the launch, within an hour 85 per cent knew of the loss. When disaster struck again and the Columbia was destroyed during re-entry on February 1 2003, President Bush reminded the nation that space travel should never be taken for granted. "These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity," he said. "In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere."

Nevertheless, he said, America's celestial ambition would not be grounded: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." In January the following year, Mr Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration, a blueprint for Nasa to focus on putting humans back on the Moon by 2020. A Nasa fact sheet, still posted on the organisation's website, proudly boasts that "the United States is transitioning from a country that sends astronauts to orbit the Earth to one that sends humans out into the solar system. Nasa is working to make this transition - from the Space Shuttle Program to the Constellation Program - seamless and safe."

Those plans are in tatters. Nasa, ever vulnerable to the ebb and flow of politics, was thrown off the rails again in January, when President Obama announced what experts called "a paradigm shift" in the American space programme. It had been banking on a glorious return to the Moon, a project that has been characterised by sceptics as little more than a stunt to revive a flagging PR profile ("Hey, let's go back and kick up some Moon dust! It worked in 1969!"). But on February 1, the lunar dream bit the dust when the administration announced plans to scrap the Bush-era Constellation programme, on which at least US$9 billion had been lavished so far, declaring it to be "behind schedule, and lacking in innovation".

Instead, America's space future would be placed in the hands of a fledging commercial space flight industry, and the new Nasa budget would include a significant slice committed to encouraging private companies to join the space business, not as contractors to Uncle Sam but on their own account. According to Dr Joan Vernikos, director of Nasa's Life Sciences Division from 1993 to 2000, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences and a consultant for the European Space Agency, it is both inevitable and desirable to pass the baton of the great space adventure from the government to private enterprise.

"What we see today is an interest by nations to join the spacefaring global community both for national leadership, commercial launch services and satellite rewards, thus changing the face of the space age," she said. "This is as it should be with any new frontier, such as it was with aviation." Not everyone agrees. The decision, said Richard Shelby, a member of the Senate subcommittee that handles Nasa funding, sounded "the death march for the future of US human space flight ? Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight programme."

Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters: "While we're cancelling Constellation, we're not cancelling our ambitions". It wasn't "a step backwards. I think the step backwards was trying to recreate the Moon landings of 40 years ago." Nasa, of course, rallied immediately behind the latest party line. It would, said the Administrator Charlie Bolden, a former astronaut and veteran of four shuttle missions, "accelerate and enhance its support for the commercial space flight industry to make travel to low-Earth orbit and beyond more accessible and more affordable.

"Imagine enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low-Earth orbit, while Nasa firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth." Yes, imagine. But what's the point, beyond giving Russian oligarchs somewhere new to go on holiday? One man who couldn't see the point in mucking about in low-Earth orbit was Michael Griffin, an aerospace engineer and physicist who was Mr Bolden's predecessor as Nasa chief from 2005 to 2009. In an extraordinary interview with USA Today in 2005, he wrote off both the shuttle programme and the International Space Station as mistakes, saying that Nasa had lost its way after Apollo ended in 1975.

If they were mistakes, they were exceptionally costly ones, in terms of cash - not far short of $US300bn - and the 14 lives lost on Challenger and Columbia. That same year,Mr Griffin announced that Nasa would send astronauts back to the Moon, the Constellation programme that has been shelved. In 2007, after Nasa had resumed flights to the Space Station in the wake of the loss of Columbia in 2003, he wrote "Why explore space?", a manifesto for the organisation that invoked the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. It had declared, he said, "that if we are going to send humans into space, the goals ought to be worthy of the cost, the risk and the difficulty. A human space flight programme with no plan to send people anywhere beyond the orbiting space station certainly did not meet that standard."

Today, Mr Griffin's manifesto, like Kennedy's dream, is history - twin reproachful elephants in the room. But as America ponders its future in space, says Dr Vernikos, "Nasa needs to pause and plan, not react to political tugs of war. "If the US wants to continue to lead in human space flight, it will need a launcher with greater lift capability. Beautiful as it is to watch and personally saddened as I am by its departure, the shuttle has outlived its safe performance and needs to be replaced. But not by old shuttle-type technology, which is what Constellation was all about. Scrapping that and starting from scratch in my view is the right way to go."

* The National