The loss of the shuttle Challenger has forcefully reminded us of the sheer fragility of the US space enterprise. The shuttle is still an experimental craft. A NASA shuttle flight from Canaveral to orbit is not yet as routine as an Eastern shuttle flight from Boston to Washington.
The loss of the Challenger has also reminded us of the narrow base of the US space enterprise. Virtually everything we put into orbit is carried by the shuttle. It was only with the greatest reluctance that Congress and the administration agreed to purchase a handful of "expendable launch vehicles" (ELVs) for the Department of Defense, to allow defense satellites to be launched independent of the shuttle.
All commercial satellites launched for US firms go either by the shuttle or by the Ariane, a French-designed ELV which competes with the shuttle. All experiments demanding in-space conditions such as zero gravity must go by shuttle. No currently available ELV is capable of handling large-scale experiments or manned experiments.
This means that commercial launches face a serious crunch over the next decade or so. Not only is the shuttle fleet cut to three-fourths of its expected size, but Department of Defense payloads, which have priority over everything else, will take a bigger fraction of what is left.
The "space lobby" is already at work. This consists of the aerospace firms which build the shuttle and its components, the professional societies of aerospace engineers, and the faculty of aerospace-engineering departments at our major universities. They are trying to persuade Congress and the administration to fund a replacement shuttle. The earlier cry for a "fifth orbiter" has now become a cry for a "fourth orbiter." Or, alternatively, they are asking for an immediate start on a second-generation shuttle.
It's easy to understand why the space lobby wants another shuttle—it's simply more business for them. It's the other space lobby—individuals who join the L-5 Society and the Planetary Society and who have The Dream of going into space themselves—whose members should take a second look before cranking up a lobbying campaign. They have to recognize that although the shuttle is a technical marvel, it's not the solution but part of the problem. It's not the road to space but a choke point on the road to space.
The clue is the reaction of the administration and Congress to the idea of another shuttle. They say that in a time of $200-billion deficits and of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction measures, we can't afford to spend several billion on a replacement for the Challenger. Clearly, to Congress and the administration, the shuttle is a money-loser, not a money-maker. If it were making money instead of losing it, they'd be jumping at the chance to "enhance revenue" by building another one.
No one knows how much money is lost on each shuttle flight. Revenues for a full shuttle bay come to about $80 million per flight. Estimates of the cost of a flight run as high as $200 million. Different economists, making different assumptions, reach different results. But the exact numbers aren't important. What is important is that each shuttle flight represents a loss to the taxpayers of something like $100 million.
The result is that the amount of traffic to orbit via the shuttle will be limited by the amount of money the government is willing to lose. The loss of the Challenger hasn't changed that reality. It has only made it more visible. The existence of Ariane doesn't really change things. The Arianespace company loses money on each flight, despite some fancy bookkeeping which shows a paper profit. Ariane only widens the choke point a little, it doesn't abolish it.
Several firms hope to build privately financed ELVs. They have complained about the subsidies paid to users of the shuttle and have even sued Arianespace (in vain) to end subsidies to Ariane users. They say they cannot compete with subsidized launch vehicles.
In the long run, however, the subsidies are irrelevant. If there are profits to be made from payloads in orbit, even after the full costs of launch are paid, the owners of those payloads will be able to afford the price of private ELVs or, ultimately, of privately operated second-generation shuttles.
Private operators have incentives to minimize costs; the space bureaucracy, subsidized from the public treasury, does not. Therefore the prices of private launches will someday be lower than even the subsidized prices of the shuttle and Ariane, just as private jitneys can make money while charging lower fares than do subsidized public-transit buses. Building another space shuttle will only delay the day when a flight to orbit is as routine and profitable as an Eastern shuttle flight.
So if you share The Dream, the message is simple: you will achieve that dream sooner if you allow private launch vehicles to smash the choke point. If you don't share The Dream, the message is still simple: you shouldn't be paying for something that hurts instead of helps. In either case, your best move is to oppose a replacement for the Challenger and to encourage the development of private launchers.
Joseph Martino is a senior research scientist in the Technology Forecasting Group at the University of Dayton Research Institute.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Scuttle the Shuttle".