The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Congressman Dave Weldon speaks with the media earlier this year. (credit: Office of Congressman Weldon)

Dave Weldon speaks about space policy

I want to say how impressed I have been with the level of professionalism and dedication everyone at NASA and the contractor community has exhibited since February 1. I am anxious to review the Gehman Report when it is released later this summer. The Congress stands ready to work with NASA to get the Shuttles flying again and to complete ISS.

There have been some voices that wish to “solve” the Columbia issues before all of the studies have been completed. In fact, those voices were heard within hours of the tragedy. Voices in the media, in academia and even, if you can believe it, in Congress!

I believe a more reasoned approach is to wait for the final Gehman report. Let us take full advantage of the tens-of-thousands of man-hours expended in analysis of this tragedy by countless technicians, engineers and panel members. Let us analyze their conclusions, not jump to conclusions.

Let me again add how proud I am of the way the agency, its leaders and the team here at KSC have pitched in, without hesitation or complaint, to do all that is possible to assist in the search for truth, wherever it may lead. Let me just say “thank you” for that!

I am also pleased to see NASA proceed, concurrent with the Columbia investigation, to pursue the Orbital Space Plane program. In light of the Columbia accident, it is clear that we need a back up system for the Space Shuttle. Total reliance on the Russians is unacceptable.

The planned deployment of the OSP in the early part or middle of the next decade is also unacceptable. We went through Mercury, Gemini, and the Apollo lunar landing in less time. It may take money, but we need to accelerate the OSP program. We need to field a system that does not require an inordinate amount of R&D and it must be a system that is not overly expensive to develop, operate and maintain.

The planned deployment of the OSP in the early part or middle of the next decade is unacceptable. It may take money, but we need to accelerate the OSP program.

My studying of space policy and history have led me to consider the conclusion that an expendable, capsule system akin to the Apollo Command Module may be the best way to do this. Now, I am aware that some people cringe when I say that because they are concerned that a new capsule system is a “throw back” to an earlier time. Many feel that NASA should be pushing forward with a new kind of reusable system to build on the work and experience we gained with Shuttle. For those of you here tonight who think my approach a little too “flat earthed,” please hear me out.

Why must this system be reusable? Frankly, I believe this is a flawed conclusion and an unnecessary requirement. If one goes back and reviews the documents and reports during the origins of the Shuttle program, the whole premise was that a reusable system would be cheaper than an expendable system only if the flight rate was high enough to amortize the very substantial development costs. The initial NASA-published Shuttle requirements called for a system that would fly no less than 25 times per year. A well-known study in 1971 showed that a reusable system was economically justified when there are around 30 flights per year. In contrast, the envisioned flight plan for OSP has it flying a little more than half a dozen times a year.

The capsule option has several other attractive elements: It would be cheaper and easier to implement an upgrades program. It could fly unmanned for test & evaluation, and also do re-supply missions. Flights could be more responsive and less costly with the elimination of the post-flight turn around maintenance and reconfiguration that a reusable system requires. A flight certified capsule system that is proven to be robust, can be modified to go to the Moon or even as the return vehicle for Near Earth Asteroid or Mars missions.

Now with all that said, I have an open mind and would enjoy hearing the arguments for a reusable runway lander. Bottom line: we need a system sooner than what is being planned.

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