This week in the universe, politics and finance dominate space science news on the heels of NASA’s five-year budget release.

No one is happy, and things certainly don’t look good for the kind of “basic science” research the president touted during the State of the Union address. Although money and policy issues dominate the news, we now know what caused the foam to fly off the shuttle Columbia, causing it to burn up on re-entry. In an amazingly under-reported interview with Orlando Sentinel space writer, Michael Cabbage, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin explained two weeks ago that we have finally “discovered” what caused the foam to fly off the Columbia and compromise its structure and is still causing the foam to fly off the shuttle’s external fuel tank. Read on to learn the details.

NASA’s five-year plan revealed

The new NASA plan amounts to a devastating 15-percent cut to science research funding — including likely cuts to some approved 2006 research programs. Cuts are being applied across all Earth and space science disciplines, and 50 percent is being cut from astrobiology research! Apparently the physical sciences do not include either Earth or space sciences.

Some of the biggest losers in the new NASA plan include:

• Rejection of a request from Congress for a new start for a mission to explore the ice-covered world of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Such a mission is the highest-priority objective outlined in the Planetary Science Community’s most recent Decadal Survey. The under-surface ocean on Europa is actually warm and provides a habitat for life.

• Delay of the Space Interferometry Mission — a key effort contributing to the understanding of the universe and the search for other planetary systems.

• Cancellation of the long-sought Terrestrial Planet Finder, a mission also supported in the original Vision for Space Exploration, to discover Earth-like planets and possible abodes for life around other stars.

• Cancellation of two Scout missions to Mars.

• Previously announced cancellation of precursor experiments and missions for human Mars exploration. The proposed budget continues to downplay Mars as a goal for human exploration.

The biggest let down from my perspective is the proposed “indefinite” cancellation of Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. This again contradicts another tenet in the president’s vision: “Conduct advanced telescope searches for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars.” Sometimes I just can’t help feeling that this administration really doesn’t want to know how it all started and if life exists outside our planet.

The space shuttle

The budget plan calls for a ridiculous number of 17 shuttle flights between now and 2010. The average number of shuttle launches per year of the space shuttle over its lifetime has been less than five. This was with four to five orbiters. Now that the country is down to only three orbiters (and soon just one launch pad) on a system with far more safety concerns and scrutiny, how can we expect to expand launch operations? Three or four is a more reasonable expectation — meaning that if all goes well and there are no more accidents or gaps in readiness for flight, the 17 flights might be accomplished in four to six years.

Clearly on the defensive, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said last week that, in effect, reports of the demise of the Terrestrial Planet Finder — and perhaps other major space-exploration projects for the future — have been exaggerated. Griffin also made a strong statement of support for sending a space shuttle mission to the Hubble Space Telescope for repair and upgrades within two years. This would be nice if it could happen.

The President’s vision for manned space exploration is the new cash cow in NASA, whose commitments vastly exceed its funding. Something has to give, and it will either be the return to moon program, the space shuttle or support to the International Space Station. This “plan” is a real travesty. Jeffery Bell, a retired space scientist, proposed the following three-stage scenario.

An awful scenario

In Bell’s scenario, this budget crisis is Stage 1 of Griffin’s plan for shuttle termination. By slashing dozens of popular space science and aeronautics programs, Griffin is brilliantly undercutting the shuttle small remaining political support base. In the past week, we have seen a unilateral outpouring of anti-shuttle sentiment.

Stage 2 in Bell’s scenario began with a little-noticed interview with Michael Cabbage of the Orlando Sentinel ( Griffin stated that tests have finally revealed the true cause of the dangerous foam shedding from shuttle fuel tanks. It now appears that the expansion of the tanks when they are drained and warmed causes the frozen foam to crack. These cracks allow air to reach the metal tank during the next filling and liquify. The liquid air rapidly boils due to aerodynamic heating during launch and blows off large chunks of foam. No kidding; we actually now know what caused the foam to fly off the most complex machine every built by humans, and it came out as an “oh-by-the-way.”

Based on my interpretation of this interview, the space shuttle has a fatal flaw and should be permanently grounded! Unfortunately, the NASA Administrator just sort of “slid this in” to his interview, allowing the shuttle program to proceed toward a launch of STS-121 sometime in May. The only fix being applied to the dreaded external fuel tank is to remove the PAL ramps that produced one of the biggest foam chunks on the last mission.

Bell predicts that shortly after the next shuttle launches (May 2006), we will again see video clips from the now famous shuttle foamcams on our TV screens, with chunks of flying foam circled in red. Griffin will appear at a press conference with a suitably grave face and announce:

“I am shocked ... shocked to learn that 3.5 years of work and many billions of dollars have failed to solve this grave safety defect. Clearly, we cannot afford to spend more years and more billions wrestling with this flawed system. The 2010 deadline for shuttle retirement is fast approaching, and the European and Japanese ISS research modules are nearing the end of their shelf lives. I am forced to ground the shuttles for good — and if the president doesn’t like that decision, he can fire me tomorrow and try to find someone else to run NASA.”

Without the shuttle, it is clear that NASA cannot complete assembly of the ISS or even boost the current configuration back to a safe altitude before the next solar maximum begins to drag it down. Griffin will order studies of alternate methods of finishing and supporting the ISS.

So in a year or so Griffin will be shocked, shocked to learn from these study groups that there no substitute for shuttle that can be brought on line in time to save ISS. He will be “forced” to withdraw from the project and make a gift of the half-completed station to the international partners (meaning Russia). He may even offer to pay for the un-launched European and Japanese science modules out of the huge stash of cash he will have on hand by then.

Sadly, if this scenario unfolds, America will be left holding a very empty bag of hollowed-out science programs with no manned space capability and worsening national budget crisis. At least amateur astronomers will still be able to find supernovae from our back yards and inspire space science.

Max Corneau is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, was the first fully qualified Army Reserve Space Operations Officer and currently Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve. He is an avid amateur astronomer and member of the Texas Astronomical Society and the Astronomical League.

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