Friday, April 16, 2004

Hindsight

You may or may not know that when STS-114 flies next year, the space shuttle program will have another shuttle ready to be launched within 90 days in case the first suffers damage that makes it impossible for the shuttle to return home. The crew of the damaged shuttle would retreat to the safety of the International Space Station. The concept is called ?Safe Haven?, and the rescue mission that would launch to retrieve the crew is officially known as STS-300.

What keeps bugging me is that the rescue mission would not be needed if NASA had not abandoned the X-38 program. If X-38 was docked to station and the damaged shuttle scenario occurred, the stranded crew could return to the earth via the X-38. No rescue mission would be needed. No additional risk to the rescue crew. No additional risk to the shuttle program. No additional risk to the ISS crew who would still have the Soyuz to return home in.

Yes, it’s arguable whether there would be—or will be-- a shuttle program if another shuttle is lost. No matter. The program would still launch a small crew and vehicle to retrieve the stranded ones, even if was the last mission the shuttle ever flew. An X-38 onboard ISS would alleviate that extra risk.

Sure, it’s all spilled milk and hindsight. But my point is that had NASA gotten the funding it needed to complete the X-38 program, both the shuttle program and shuttle crews would not have to suffer the risk they will if anything else goes wrong.

We’ll do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t. But this is another example of how something designed for one thing finds an alternative and viable use; and how abandoning a program before its prime—like the Bush Administration is proposing to do with shuttle to get the mythical Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) spaceborne—may hurt you in ways you haven’t yet imagined.