Nearly five years ago, on April 14, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia landed like a champion at Edward AFB, Calif., after orbiting the planet thirty-six times. A winged spacecraft had actually been flown back to earth in fine shape to go into space again.
Columbia’s triumphant reentry and return marked the beginning of a new era for the United States in the space age. It held bright promise for the Space Transportation System (STS) of reusable Shuttle orbiters on which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense had pinned their hopes. It meant that the US , as Astronaut Robert Crippen put it on emerging from Columbia at Edwards, was “back in the space business to stay.”
Shuttle flights became commonplace. With relatively few setbacks, military and commercial satellites were routinely deposited in space. Shuttle crews conducted scientific experiments, repaired a satellite, and came up with some observations of terrestrial features that space sensors had missed.
The Shuttle fleet was expanded to four orbiters. The Air Force built a Shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and was preparing for its first launch of a military payload there this year.
USAF had become, in fact, overly dependent on the Shuttles. As a precaution, it moved to build ten big, new booster rockets as a complementary means of launching top-priority military payloads (see p. 25). Even so, “In the future, the Space Shuttle will be our primary launch vehicle, and fully eighty percent of our launches will be on the Shuttle.” USAF Maj. Gen. Donald J. Kutyna told an Air Force Association/Aerospace Education Foundation Roundtable audience last January 21.
One week later, Challenger blew up. The US space program, pegged to a Shuttle fleet suddenly reduced to three orbiters and with a fatal frailty shockingly exposed, was in trouble.
It is impossible to imagine how the human tragedy of the Challenger accident could ever be redeemed. For the space program, however, that accident may well have been a positive turning point.
There is every chance that the space program will rebound from it to become, in the long run, stronger and clearer of purpose than before.
For example, plans to go beyond the Shuttle in developing a new generation of reusable spacecraft — manned, unmanned, or both — have been crystallized by the Challenger catastrophe and are much more obviously justified. It is now conceivable that some such spacecraft will be capable of taking off from runways, vaulting into orbit, and circling the globe in no time flat. Their military and commercial applications are alluring, and it is time to hurry them along.
More broadly, space policymakers, scientists, and technologists are now called upon to bear down harder in their search for conclusions to some fundamental questions. Among them: What is man’s role in space? What exactly does the nation need to accomplish in space? How much money will it and should it be willing to devote to space? Which new technologies will be crucial to the US exploitation of space
Whatever the answers, one philosophical conclusion is inescapably clear. The US cannot pull back from space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. It must have assured, routine access to space for whatever purposes that it deems necessary, consistent with arms-control agreements, to deter war and, if need be, to wage war.
President Reagan had it exactly right. “Nothing ends here,” he told the nation in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy.
The President was at Edwards AFB on the Fourth of July 1982 to watch Columbia come back with flying colors for the fourth straight time. He took the occasion to enunciate his new National Space Policy, in which he ordered up a comprehensive civil and military program to establish and maintain US preeminence in space.
Less than a year later, President Reagan broached his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program that would determine the feasibility of defending against enemy ICBMs with non-nuclear weapons, using space, if necessary, to “save lives rather than avenge them” should those ICBMs ever mount the skies.
The President also ordered NASA and DoD to identify the space-launch capabilities and technologies that the US will need in order to transcend the payload and orbital maneuvering limitations of the Shuttles well before the turn of the century. He also set up the National Space Commission as the first move in his Administration’s formulation of a national strategy for space.
So the stage is set for the nation, if it has the will and can come up with the money, to gain the military and civilian supremacy in space that is President Reagan’s goal. If it doesn’t, the Soviets will.
Following the Apollo program and prior to the advent of the Space Shuttle, the US let its manned space program languish and concentrated instead on unmanned exploration of the solar system. The Soviets did it the other way around, learning well how to live and work in space. They also came up with an operational anti-satellite (ASAT) system, worked hard on other kinds of space weaponry, and got going on a Shuttle of their own.
Shortly before the first US Space Shuttle flew, the late Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley, then USAF’s three-star Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans, and Readiness, declared: “I fervently hope that the advent of the Shuttle will regain the initiative for the US in deploying man in space.”
It did. Let us now fervently hope that the Challenger disaster does not sap that initiative and cause the US to forfeit its place in space.