It has been more than 30 years since America's then-masterful National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent 12 humans to land and walk on the moon in six manned Apollo missions and brought every one of them safely back to Earth without even a scratch. Yet today's NASA is not capable of even sending a single astronaut 200 miles into space into low-Earth orbit to reach the International Space Station.
Today, and for at least five and perhaps 10 years to come, all U.S. astronauts can only be sent aloft courtesy of the reliable, man-rated Proton and Soyuz boosters of the Russian space program. The remaining three ships of the space shuttle fleet remain grounded since the catastrophic loss on re-entry of the Columbia over Palestine, Texas, on Feb. 1, 2003.
It still is not known when, or even if, manned space shuttle missions will recommence.
Despite much talk about building a new generation of man-rated booster rockets, as announced by President George W. Bush on Jan. 14, none of them have yet even been designed, let alone built. They are not even on the drawing boards, and Boeing's visionary X-33, the orbital space plane, has been scrapped by NASA before construction as another impractical visionary but unrealistic dream.
Despite its $15 billion operating budget, NASA's manned space program is in shambles. A year and half after the Columbia incinerated its seven astronauts in a ball of fire, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe still has not authorized a timetable for the three remaining shuttles -- Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour -- to fly again. In response to Bush's plan, O'Keefe has pledged a sweeping new strategy for the agency, including a proposed replacement for the shuttle called the crew exploration vehicle, but he has given no hint of when that plan will be delivered.
NASA's problems go far, far deeper than the expensive woes of its now-inert manned space program. Critics charge the revered agency long has been a gigantic socialized bureaucracy that has failed repeatedly at what it was given multiple billions of dollars to do.
Ironic, but Bush has remained an uncritical, instinctive protector of NASA, maintaining policies that are classic examples of big-government, big-spending, pork-barrel waste.
After the Columbia disaster, Bush pledged to boost NASA's budget by at least a half-billion dollars a year so the unscientific, uneconomic programs it had long imposed upon its clients could continue unabated. Thus the president has been throwing good money after bad, for even before Columbia disintegrated the costs of the shuttle program had proven truly catastrophic.
To date, 14 astronauts have died in the spacecraft. The program has cost a quarter-trillion dollars over 25 years. Yet U.S. capabilities in space remain only a fraction of what they were a decade before the first shuttle mission was ever launched.
In 2004, the United States possesses vastly inferior manned space capabilities than it did during the Skylab station program in the mid-1970s, or even when it first sent three astronauts around the moon and returned them safely to Earth, on Apollo 8, nearly 36 years ago in December 1968.
The shuttle is dangerous, expensive, non-economic, militarily useless and loathed by scientists -- all for very good reasons. Nevertheless, like any Lyndon Johnson- or Jimmy Carter-era, Great Society bureaucracy or any Soviet command-economy, Gosplan state enterprise, NASA continues to purge any vestige of economic or scientific rationality or practical effectiveness from the space program.
Indeed, agency critics long have argued no organization has done more to keep America out of space for the past 30 years than NASA has, and no program has been more decisive in achieving that end than the space shuttle.
The shuttle fleet is down from five spacecraft 20 years ago to only three now -- with Challenger and Columbia destroyed in catastrophic accidents costing the lives of all on board. Those 14 lost lives are more than all the other U.S. and Soviet/Russian spacecraft fatalities combined since manned space travel began with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April 1961, more than 43 years ago. By contrast, the clunky old Soviet/Russian space program has not lost a life in space in more than a quarter-century.
The remaining shuttles each are now at least 20 years old. Gregg Easterbrook, who predicted disaster for the shuttle program in an article in The Washington Monthly just months before Columbia's first flight in April 1981, tellingly noted on Time.com after the 2003 disaster that Americans insist on school buses being replaced every decade, yet NASA and its congressional supporters seriously think the remaining shuttles can be operated safely and reliably for another 20 years -- making 40 years in all of wear and tear at multiple gravitational force take-offs and atmospheric re-entries at 20 times or so the speed of sound and six to nine times the speed of a fired bullet.
So far, no one in Congress -- Republican or Democrat -- has dared to take on NASA's mighty interest groups, including the huge aerospace corporations with which it has enjoyed a 40-year cozy relationship. Likewise, no one in Congress has dared to suggest the vast government agency be privatized. The most they have ventured is to propose legislation requiring NASA to develop new reusable spaceships, or longer-range manned ones, or to create yet more bureaucratic oversight bodies to oversee an agency that has long drowned in its own expensive and time-consuming paperwork.
NASA bureaucrats have decades-long experience, however, at frustrating any efforts to make them change their ways, or to be more bold or supportive to manned space exploration. Their corporate culture, greatly shaped by the late Carl Sagan, has long been skewed against precisely that.
NASA shows no signs of any urgency or haste in developing the necessary next generation of reliable and cost-effective Big Dumb Booster workhorse rockets, capable of carrying manned spacecraft to keep up with the rapidly evolving Chinese manned space program.
If current trends continue, China will be able to orbit the moon, 240,000 miles away, with three taikonauts, displaying its own astronauts to celebrate the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Yet by then, NASA might still lack the capability to launch U.S. astronauts into low Earth orbit -- a mere 200 miles up.
NASA was a product of America's 1960s Big Government, welfare-society liberalism and it has survived even after the catastrophic welfare system of that era was finally reformed. Now, it looks set to survive for many years into the 21st century, abetted by a reflexively supportive president and a timid Congress beholden to special interest groups in a bipartisan consensus.
Despite all the hoopla that surrounded Bush's announcement earlier this year of a plan to return astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars and the solar system, no practical steps to implement this vision have yet been taken. On current form, none need be expected.
Martin Sieff is UPI's Senior News Analyst. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org