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The Last Space Shuttle Flight

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 13, 2011

    The space race was an integral part of the oneupmanship that characterised the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. It began with the “Sputnik Crisis” in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first-ever artificial satellite. This came as a rude shock to the United States, which was concerned not only about its prestige but also about the military implications of its adversary mastering space technology. Though the US responded to the "Sputnik Crisis" within a few months by launching its own satellite, it once again received a shock in 1961 when the USSR sent a man to space. This “Gagarin Crisis” prompted the US reacted to undertake a manned mission to the moon (1969), and thereby raise the bar higher.

    Today, the US decision to discard the space shuttle programme and instead depend on Russia to reach the International Space Station (ISS) in future is being viewed as a loss of prestige. The July 8, 2011 launch of the US space shuttle Atlantis is the last launch of the shuttle programme. As the world debates the future of the American space programme, it appears that the curtains are coming down on this Nixon-era programme. So, has the moment of “poetic justice” finally arrived in this six-decade-old space rivalry or are we incorrectly judging the present competition in space through Cold War standards?

    In the 21st century, countries formulate their national policies mainly based on economic and strategic motivations. The world has recognised that the perceived notions of nationalism, supremacy, etc. have limited relevance in a nation’s growth and that geostrategic and economic realities remain the prime movers. Hence, it is important to analyse the US decision to close its space shuttle programme and in doing so go beyond the perceived notion of ‘dominance’.

    Apart from the ISS programme, the space shuttle has played a major role in other experiments like the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X Ray Observatory as well as facilitating some interplanetary missions. Various experiments in the field of astronomy, space physics, crystal growth, etc. in the zero gravity atmosphere have been possible because of the space shuttle. It has also played a role in defence particularly with respect to defence communication satellite systems.

    For the last few years the agenda of the space shuttle programme has remained ISS centric. The ISS is a multilateral space station programme which involves 16 states including the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and some European nations. The construction of this space station is almost over, and the future emphasis would be more on scientific experimentation.

    Presently, each space shuttle mission costs approximately US$ 450 million. Overall 135 space shuttle missions have taken off till date. The original cost of this programme was expected to be $90 billion. However, it has exceeded beyond $195 billion so far. Over the last few years there has been criticism that this programme has failed to live up to the promised cost and utility goals. So, is the US stopping this programme for financial reasons? The answer is debatable. The US understands that NASA’s budget is one area where some savings could be made but at the same time it also understands that the laws of economics are not strictly applicable in the field of scientific research. The US is operating the space shuttle for the last thirty years and the stage of technology learning and deriving technology spinoffs is probably over. The future is going to be a routine transportation activity. So, when it is possible to pay ($51 million per seat, say for seven astronauts, which approximately comes to $350 million per mission, thus resulting in a saving of $100 million per mission) the Russians for reaching the ISS, why continue with acostly shuttle programme?

    Till date, the experimentation carried out on-board the ISS has not provided any major breakthroughs which could revolutionise the existing technology trajectory. However, this does not guarantee that nothing will happen in the future and hence the need for the US to remain engaged with the programme. On the other hand, the US also understands the limitations of operating in a multilateral environment. It cannot undertake experiments of direct strategic relevance. However, certain ‘dual-use experiments’ which could have relevance both in civilian and military fields are being undertaken on-board the ISS. The current Atlantis mission is testing technology that could refuel and repair satellites in orbit. The strategic relevance of such experimentation is obvious.

    The emphasis of the Obama administration in space is on privatisation. Obama is interested in developing the space industry in a big way. He knows that 5000 jobs have been lost because of the closure of the shuttle programme. He expects the industry to take a lead in space shuttle and moon programmes. However, the space industry is unlikely to invest in such exotic projects without any revenue guarantees. It would expect various concessions from the government. Presently, the concept of space tourism (in low earth orbit) appears to be the most viable option for the industry to invest in. This is where the rest of the world should remain vigilant and not allow the US to start space tourism without developing a global legal architecture.

    It is important to view various human activities in space not with the straitjacketed approach that every experiment undertaken in space has to continue endlessly. When the US conquered the moon in the sixties it was believed to have humiliated the USSR. In the 21st century such perceptions of ‘embarrassment’ no longer exist. In any event, the moon programme ended because of the lack of a scientific and strategic agenda as well as due to financial compulsions. Presently, when the importance of the moon is getting reestablished for different reasons like the search for mineral and energy resources, the US is again investing in moon missions although with a very limited and focused mandate.

    US policies in space highlight the fact it does not perceive all activities in space as of equal importance. For the US, activities in low, medium and geostationary orbits are of core significance. It understands the importance of reaching the moon and Mars and doing experimentation for the ISS, but is not ready to offer a ‘nucleus’ status to such activities. The US is aware that it is far ahead of others in these arenas. Technically, for sending astronauts to the ISS, the US will depend on Russia till 2015 because by that time an alternative mechanism is expected to become available. The US understands that Russia could exploit this dependence. Perhaps, the US would be forced to ‘tweak’ some of its Missile Defence policies in the next few years.

    It appears that the US is stopping the shuttle programme by design and not for want of technology or money. Discontinuing the space shuttle does not mean that the US has lost the space race; it would be too naive to believe so.