I’d have waited awhile, but the TV mediots are already trying to place the events of today into A Grand Context. They are speaking in sweeping generalization and grand predictions of Its Effect On America, The End Of The Space Station… and so forth.
Yes there will be some effects, but primarily this is a human tragedy. We’ve lost some brave people and many of us empathize with the great vision and are saddened by the loss.
But it is not going to cause any Earth shattering changes. It is not going to scar the national psyche. It is just a family funeral of loved ones in which we are all part of the extended family; those of us in the space community feel it perhaps more deeply than most but not nearly so much as their co-workers in Houston and Cape Canaveral or their families.
With all of that said, I can now plunge into the punditry.
The shuttles are going to be grounded for anything from months to a year. This will cause an enormous impact on the ISS scheduling. Completion will be thrown back by years. It is not only the loss of time while the fleet is grounded; it is the loss of capacity. Columbia was not much use for ISS missions and so it was useful for other non-ISS missions. Now those missions will have to be cut or serviced by the remaining fleet. That means a lengthening of the ISS completion time line. This can be somewhat ameliorated by giving the Russians a bundle of money to handle most of the supply trips.
We can’t abandon the ISS for a long period of time. It must be reboosted at regular intervals because the vast solar arrays give it a lot of drag. There is a small amount of gas even at that altitude. Enough to slowly bring it down. So there is no real option of abandoning it for a couple years. You can’t.
You also can’t risk bringing something that big into re-entry in one piece; and you can’t disassemble it without shuttle support.
So NASA must get the fleet flying again. President Bush has already said we will not abandon space. In the community, we all knew that. It’s simply too important now.
There will almost certainly be a push for a replacement vehicle. The shuttle is, after all, a 1975 base level of technology. It’s been upgraded and retro fitted, but even the newest shuttle, the Endeavour, is nearing 15 years old. The problems are budgetary and the inability of the “old aerospace” to perform on anything like a reasonable time and budget. I had actually much hoped NASA would work with the existing shuttles until the end of the decade, long enough to let the start up companies move in and revolutionize the field.
What is my guess? I will suggest we’ll see a half hearted program for a shuttle replacement initiated. It will run over budget or be stillborn like every other such program in the last 15 years. The ISS schedule will stretch out to a completion date of 2010, almost 30 years after Ronald Reagan called for a space station to be completed in 10 years. An X-Prize space ship will fly suborbital this year or next year and there will be private tourists on private suborbital flights by 2006 and orbital by 2010. NASA will then buy one for crew turnaround. The Russians will get a big capital infusion to turn out more Soyez and Protons.
The world will keep turning and the sky will stay firmly in place.