Fox News' article by writer Rand Simberg concerning the space shuttle program and the NASA Space Launch Initiative (SLI) demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both programs, and of the nation’s space transportation policy and industry.
Contrary to the writer's whims, the space shuttle system was never "dramatically overspecified". The original design, of a first generation partially reusable vehicle was modified to conform to the political and budget realities of the 1970s. Given the actual system as built, the shuttle has performed magnificently across more than two decades. A national policy decision made some thirty years ago called for the shuttles to fly commercial, military, and civil space payloads and cargoes. But that process was ended by President Ronald Reagan following the 1986 Challenger accident.
Since that time, the nation's fleet of four shuttles have flown increasingly complex missions. Following a transition to a commercial operator, millions of dollars have been saved from previous operational costs, and returned to the federal treasury. In these recent years, space shuttle flights have been increasingly safe, have launched more to a pre-set schedule than ever before, and increased flight safety. By whatever measurement one may choose, this system, now entering its third decade, has been a programmatic success for America and the space industry that builds and operates it.
But no machine can or should fly forever. To begin the long term planning for a future generation of more advanced reusable craft, NASA has initiated a follow-on program called the Space Launch Initiative. Often referred to as "SLI", the project has brought millions of dollars of government funding for technology advancements in spacecraft structures, propulsion, and vehicle operations. The SLI program has been- and we at STA hope it will continue to be –a place within the federal budget where much needed research and development funding occurs for future launch technologies.
For much of the past decade, NASA and the Department of Defense have underfunded its technology and research programs with respect to launch systems. Both SLI, and the Defense Department's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle programs have been efforts to reverse that decline in federal investments. But continuous investments, and system enhancements to both reusable as well as expendable systems are needed.
Contrary to Mr. Simberg's contentions, there is a space transportation industry. It consists of space shuttle operations, commercial expendable launch vehicles, a space propulsion industry element, and the need for long term research for the future.
The nation can best assure its access to space by a balanced role of industry participation and federal investments.
Both shuttle and SLI are vital elements of that access.
For Additional Information Contact: Frank Sietzen, Jr. 703-685-7090