Technology & Science

NASA struggles with direction 25 years after Challenger disaster

Twenty-five years after the Challenger crash, NASA is refocusing its goals and resources. The federally funded program is on the verge of retiring all of Challenger's sister shuttles.

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The seven astronauts who comprised the crew of the Challenger are remembered today, 25 years after the disaster that destroyed the shuttle just 73 seconds after it lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The explosion of the shuttle in 1986 destroyed the lives of the victims and their families, but also factored into a drastic change in public and government opinion towards NASA and space flight in general.

The highly publicized mission was Challenger’s 10th launch. The team included Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was selected to be the first civilian in space, in addition to six NASA crew members.

"Back then, the attitude was the shuttle can't blow up — nobody thought of space flight as dangerous," recalled Pat Duggins, author of Trailblazing Mars: NASA’s Next Giant Leap.

A similar disaster involving the shuttle Columbia in 2003, compounded by a sluggish U.S. economy, has drastically reduced government and public support for funding the program, says Duggins. But he maintains that the space industry will continue to move forward.

NASA is now looking in a new direction in an attempt to refocus its goals and resources. The federally funded program is on the verge of retiring all of Challenger’s sister shuttles. For the final flight - set to launch this June — Atlantis will carry parts and resources to the International Space Station.

"If they [NASA] are going to explore anything, the shuttles had to go. They barely carried enough fuel to reach low orbit," says Duggins.

International space race

  • The China National Space Administration achieved manned-space flight in 2003 aboard the Shenzhou 5
  • The Indian Space Research Organization has successfully established two satellite systems, INSAT and IRS
  • The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, developed Kibo – the single largest module for the ISS
  • The European Space Agency is composed of 18 contributing nations and is heavily involved with the ISS
  • The Russian Federal Space Agency is one of the most active globally, with plans to launch dozens of spacecrafts by 2015

However, along with the shuttle fleet, NASA is also retiring its only independent means by which to transport manned-missions into orbit. Though new NASA heavy-lift propulsion technology is in development, American and Canadian astronauts will have to rely entirely on the space programs of other countries to reach orbit for the time being.

"The fact that they are retiring the shuttles forces them to purchase flights from the Russians," says Gilles Leclerc, director general of space exploration and the Canadian Space Agency.

While NASA figures out a replacement vehicle for the shuttle, the space industry isn't waiting around to see what it chooses. Private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are investing in their own craft, and may soon become viable options for ferrying individuals into orbit.

"We have to consider in the future how we are going to integrate this new paradigm where the majority of access to space will be provided by the private sector," says Leclerc.

This changing landscape has the U.S. government optimistically setting more ambitious goals for its space program.

"By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth, and landing on Mars will follow - and I expect to be around to see it," said Barack Obama in April.

In his recent 2011 State of the Union address, he reiterated his support for technological innovation, announcing an upcoming budget that will help "reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race."

In its 2011 budget estimates, NASA lists an expected $6 billion US increase in funding over 2010, for a total of $100 billion US over the next five years. Around $3 billion US of the funding will be budgeted for the research and development of new propulsion systems needed to fill the void left following the shuttle program.

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The funding is good news for NASA and supporters of space exploration, but it also increases the pressure on the agency to perform. Taxpayers are going to expect to see some tangible return on the investment.

"[NASA] is at a crossroads in their space program," says Leclerc. "For the continued support that an ambitious space program requires from Congress, agencies have to demonstrate that they bring benefits."

Canadian co-operation

The phasing out of the shuttle fleet has a direct impact on Canada's own space initiatives. Despite heavy reliance on the U.S. space program, the retirement of the shuttle fleet has been taken into account by the Canadian Space Agency in its planning.

"NASA has a long-term obligation with other partners to provide [the CSA] with transportation to the ISS," Leclerc said.

Canada's astronauts will continue to maintain a presence on the International Space Station in the coming years. This includes Chris Hadfield, who will take command of the station – the first Canadian to do so — for a three-month period starting in March 2013.

Leclerc added that the amount of funding required makes attempting independent launches simply unrealistic for the CSA. Instead, Canada will continue to focus on making contributions to international space partnerships.

"Our strategy has always been to specialize in signature technologies, areas where we have a chance to have a strong impact with modest investments," says Leclerc, referring to spaces robotics and communications, fields in which Canada is a global leader.