If, like me, you’re a fan of all things space-related, then this year’s grounding of the Space Shuttle fleet is a tricky thing–sensible, and yet a poignant tragedy. Now the biggest voice yet has joined the pro-Shuttle debate: John Glenn.
If you don’t know that name, then shame on you: He was the third person in space, and the first American to orbit Earth as part of NASA’s historic Mercury program in 1962. After retiring from NASA he “dabbled” in politics, winning a 25-year seat in the Senate representing Ohio, until 1999. In 1998 he became the oldest person yet to fly to space, as a working crew member aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. In other words, this man knows what the heck he’s talking about, from a technological, explorational, and political point of view. His words carry weight.
And his words about the Shuttle’s planned retirement to “make way” for NASA to develop its successor unhindered by having to support the aging Shuttle systems are stark. Speaking to the AP Glenn’s message is very simple: “We have a vehicle here, why throw it away? It’s working well.” Glenn also thinks that the fact that in the interim between Shuttle flights and a viable successor human-rated heavy lift rocket NASA will have to pay Russia to fly its people into the void “doesn’t sit right” with him and probably many Americans either. It’s a viewpoint that’s a tad jingoistic, harking back to the Cold War and space race of old, but Glenn has a point–one of the wonderful halo effects of the U.S. space race successes was a rush of excitement in all things space-related, and a boost in enthusiasm for science that is arguably responsible for many current U.S. tech successes. Resigning the ride to space to your once-foes for so many years is simply not going to stir up the public’s U.S. science feelings–and the money could easily be spent flying one or two Shuttles per year.
In some sense, Glenn’s position echoes what many said at the end of the Apollo program–the ridiculously successful enterprise that put men on the moon. At the end of Apollo, everything was scrapped to make way for the Shuttle. And yet there were proposals on the table to develop the Saturn V rocket tech to a point where the entire International Space Station could’ve been launched in a single shot, decades ago. The argument supporting this is that you take a short-to-medium term financial hit to benefit from a massive long term gain: Think of how much more advanced space science, and medicine would be, if a Saturn derivative had launched the ISS in the 1980s. And then extrapolate that notion to keeping the Shuttle aloft until a successor, possibly based on Shuttle tech is fully certified. Glenn’s concern is also that an accident may befall the Russian Soyuz system, grounding the rockets and forcing abandonment of the billion-dollar ISS–a position from which it could probably never be rescued.
As for the Obama-led push to develop the U.S.’s commercial space industry, Glenn is “leery” of it. You may well think he could be little else, with a career in the military and a long history in NASA somewhat institutionalizing him into ideas about “how it should be done.” But you can’t argue with his sentiment and position on the costs involved. All we have to see now is if Obama has the stones to respond with some meaningful arguments to support his Shuttle-trashing plans, and to disagree with a man who’s flow in space aboard numerous vessels, flown in the Marine Corps. as a fighter pilot and earned the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.