Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, September 07, 2008

2010: A Space Jihad-yssey

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin refers to the Space Shuttle's forced retirement in 2010 as a "jihad" in a recent e-mail that's sure to get the space community (the factions supporting Griffin and the factions opposing him) worked up.

While the administrator's choice of phrase is already drawing strong reactions, it's not off-base for describing the situation at hand. If we define jihad as a war based on dogma rather than logic, the firm 2010 retirement date for the shuttle falls into that category.

The 2010 date originated in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report from August 2003, which called for a major program-wide re-certification of the shuttle fleet by 2010. The Bush Administration turned the 2010 date into official policy when the shuttle retirement plan was announced on January 14, 2004. While the Griffin letter claims that 2010 was based on completion of the International Space Station, the truth is that the space station's final configuration was curtailed to fit within the existing space shuttle schedule, not vice-versa.

Trying to find logic in CAIB's 2010 "re-certification" date is difficult, hence the validity of Griffin's claim of "jihad." If the shuttle was deemed too unsafe to fly, it should have been terminated in 2003. The problem is that the shuttle and ISS have always been wedded to each other, and ISS will never achieve full functionality without the shuttle's unique capabilities. If the political benefits of operating ISS outweighed the safety risks of flying the shuttle, CAIB should have tied the shuttle retirement date to the time in the future when ISS is permanently abandoned. Instead, we have a compromise situation where ISS is completed, the shuttle is retired, and ISS hopefully continues operating with support from European and Japanese resupply craft that were completely untested when CAIB announced the 2010 date.

Part of the Griffin e-mail seems like a bit of an attempt to rescue his legacy. The warnings he claims to have made about reliance on Russia have never been publicized up to this point. Perhaps he was making these points behind closed doors. And it would be bad policy for the NASA Administrator, a high-profile member of the executive branch, to publicly bad-mouth the Russians and undermine the State Department.

With all that being said, I think NASA is pursuing a responsible policy of determining what would be required to operate the shuttle in a situation where additional funding was found, and in a situation where NASA received no budget increase to handle both shuttle operations and Ares/Orion development. At the same time, Wayne Hale's recent comments on the subject don't give me much confidence that the shuttle can fly long beyond 2010 without expensive work to rebuild facilities and supply chains that have already been dismantled. Perhaps the shuttle will be "re-certified," as per CAIB's recommendation for 2010.