Pratt Panel Looks at Post-Columbia Future of Spaceflight

Three Duke observers of America’s space program looked into the future
following the shuttle Columbia tragedy and came up with different views
Feb. 20 at a special panel discussion at the Pratt School of Engineering.

Alex Roland, professor of history and a former NASA historian, said the
International Space Station currently in orbit with three men aboard should
be mothballed and NASA should focus on building a much safer, less
expensive rocket ship than the space shuttle.

Earl Dowell, J.A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering and
Materials Sciences and a member of past space advisory panels, said
the investigation into the cause of the Columbia’s breakup during its
return to Earth Feb. 1 may never come up with a definitive answer. And he
said the appearance of a lack of independence on the part of the
government investigation board may come back to haunt NASA.

Al Rossiter Jr., a long-time space journalist who retired from Duke in 2001
and now heads Pratt’s communications on a part-time basis, said the
nation has no alternative but to fix the remaining shuttles so they can
continue to service the space station. He said the United States and 15
partner nations have too much invested in the station to shut it down.

“Next the White House and Congress must decide whether to extend the
life of the shuttles -- which as we know were built on technology that
already is a quarter of a century old -- or bite the bullet and proceed to a
second generation shuttle, something the Bush administration placed on
the back burner before the Columbia accident,” Rossiter said.

Roland, whose anti-shuttle views have been widely cited by national news
media, argued that NASA should stop relying on the shuttle and get on
with space exploration.

“It can be either manned or unmanned,” he said. “I have no preference.
Both could be valuable.

“In the situation in which we find ourselves, however, the space shuttle
inhibits exploration. It doesn’t mean that manned exploration could never
make sense in a different environment, but right now it doesn’t make
sense. And that’s because all existing manned space vehicles retard
exploration. The first mission of any manned spacecraft is not to explore;
it’s to return the crew alive. And any exploration you do is a secondary
mission.

“The shuttle is especially counterproductive as a manned space vehicle. It
is the most sophisticated launch vehicle in the world by far but it also the
most expensive, and it is also the most fragile, the most vulnerable. And
as long as we are chained to this technology -- the space shuttle or
something like it -- then anything that we want to do in space is going to
be cheaper without the people, either with fully automated spacecraft, or
as most of our spacecraft are, by spacecraft that are simply controlled by
people here on Earth.”

Dowell blamed NASA budget constraints for the fact that the agency is still
relying on shuttles.

“The only reason we haven’t scrapped them is that no one wants to pay
the bill to build a new one,” he said. “It’s cheaper to keep your old car, at
least on a year to year basis, than it is to buy a new car, even though in the
long term it may be a wiser investment to buy a new car. And the same
thing applies to the space shuttle.”

Rossiter said the Bush administration and Congress have a lot of difficult
decisions facing them in addition to selecting a post-Columbia path for
human spaceflight, "but we must not lose sight of our future while dealing
with the problems of today."