05.16.11

Endeavour Launch: NASA's Final Countdown

Beyond the buzz over the delays, Gabrielle Giffords, and President Obama, Endeavour's launch Monday signifies the setting of the 30-year-old shuttle program—ceding U.S. space preeminence to the Russians. Peter J. Boyer reports.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama once remarked that America’s space program had become so uninspiring the space shuttle missions scarcely qualified as news. He could not have foreseen the drama attending the twice-delayed launch of the shuttle Endeavour. As many as half a million people crowded the beach roads and byways around Cape Canaveral to watch the stubby space plane push through the morning sky, an awesome spectacle of rocket power, before disappearing into orbit for its rendezvous with the International Space Station.

Gallery: 14 Greatest Moments in Space

For months, the mission’s most captivating angle has been the parallel saga of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman whose husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is Endeavor’s commander. Giffords’ attendance at the launch has been a key goal of her rehabilitation process, as she recovers from the grave brain injury inflicted by a Tucson gunman in January. According to a person close to the Giffords-Kelly family, her trip Sunday from the rehab hospital in Houston to Cape Canaveral was partly choreographed by Scott Kelly, Mark’s twin brother and fellow astronaut, and handled like a military mission, complete with the deployment of decoy vehicles, to avoid the press. A similar routine was used last month for Giffords’ first foray to the Kennedy Space Center, but the launch was canceled due to technical problems. President Obama, who also came for that launch, didn’t return for this one.

At the Cape, Giffords watched the launch from the rooftop of the Launch Control Center, a vantage point reserved for the shuttle crew’s family, with an unobstructed view of the launchpad, more than three miles away. The only way to reach the roof is by way of a staircase on the outside of the building; black netting was draped over the stairs to protect Giffords from the view of news cameras, perched at the press center across the way.

Beyond the excitement of the launch, there has been an almost elegiac tone surrounding the Endeavour mission, the penultimate launch in the 30-year-old shuttle program, which will end this summer. Layoff notices were sent out to several hundred Kennedy Space Center employees last week, as part of job reductions that will reduce the spaceport’s work force by half, to 7,000 employees. The local county’s work force board has estimated that 23,000 workers associated with the Space Center will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends.

“Whatever you thought about what we had, they replaced it with nothing,” says Michael Griffin, Bush’s NASA chief.

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Some close to the space program have an even bigger worry—that the era of American preeminence in space is nearing an end. In shuttering the shuttle, the U.S. will lose the capacity to launch humans into space for several years, possibly as long as a decade. In the meantime, American astronauts will have to hitch rides with Russians, paying around $60 million for each trip aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule.

John Glenn, the space pioneer and former Democratic senator, was so bothered by the prospect of a space gap that he personally pleaded with Obama last year to keep the shuttle program going until a replacement system was ready. After listening to Glenn’s appeal in a 40-minute meeting at the White House, the president said, “We just don’t have the money to do it,” Glenn recalls. He says he worries that, once the U.S. is a fully dependent space client, Russia will use its advantage to up the price. “I think it was very short-sighted,” Glenn says. “We’re throwing away the shuttle, which is the most complex vehicle ever put together by human beings. We’re saying that we’re putting complete reliance on the Soyuz, at enormous expense, to get our people back and forth from space. And you know, good and well, when they renegotiate that the next time around, it’s going to be a lot more money.”

Giffords also had been forcefully voicing that view. During her sophomore term in Congress, in 2007-08, she chaired an important space subcommittee and became one of the strongest advocates of a robust American human space exploration program. In 2010, she wrote that the space gap “forces the United States to rely on the same Soyuz spacecraft that raced our Aplollo astronauts to the moon and lost. It condemns us to a future of paying Russia for this service, so Russia can pursue its exploration goals.”

The space gap was actually set in motion by President George W. Bush, who, after the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, dramatically reoriented the American space program away from the shuttle and space station and toward a renewed human exploration of deeper space. His administration launched a program called Constellation, which would take Americans back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Giffords was a fan of that program (Mark Kelly helped to design the capsule that would land on the moon), but Obama decidedly was not. (“We’ve been there before,” he said of the moon project.) Constellation wasn’t helped by the fact that it was underfunded, which put it behind schedule and in turn drove up costs.

When Obama became president, he ordered a full review of the space program. He kept with Bush’s cancellation of the shuttle (extending it by two missions, including Endeavour’s), but decided to kill the follow-on Constellation program, salvaging a version of the landing capsule, Orion (to be used as a space station escape vehicle). The money saved will be spent on fostering commercial efforts to fly American astronauts to the space station, and on the development of a future system meant to take Americans to an asteroid by 2025.

To Obama’s most pointed critics, this policy reflects an ideological bias. “Whatever you thought about what we had, they replaced it with nothing,” says Michael Griffin, Bush’s NASA chief. “This is an administration that believes the United States is too prominent, to prepossessing, too dominant in the world. The human space flight program was the archetype of exactly what the current administration in its philosophy dislikes about America’s position in the world, and they want it to go away.”

Nonsense, says Lori Garver, Obama’s space adviser during his campaign and now the deputy administrator of NASA. The Obama administration believes fully in human space exploration, she says, but Constellation was “unsustainable and unsound.”

But some of the president’s friends worry that, as Giffords wrote last year, Obama’s space policy “discards five years and $10 billion of development of the Constellation program and offers little in return.”

Even Griffin admits there is plenty of political blame to go around, noting that Bush-era underfunding made Constellation vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the space gap looms for the nation whose dominance of space began fifty years ago this month, when President John F. Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress the bold ambition of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Astronaut Michael Barratt notes that the Endeavour was named for the ship sailed by Captain James Cook on his perilous discovery voyage in 1769, and observes, “If you had gone back to Cook’s day and suggested that they stop sending ships out for a period of time while they huddled and designed a ship for the next generation, I think they would have all [chosen] suicide.”

Peter J. Boyer joined Newsweek/Daily Beast after spending 18 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including politics, the military, religion, and sports. Before joining The New Yorker, Boyer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a television critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” As a correspondent on the documentary series, Frontline, he won a George Foster Peabody Award, an Emmy, and consecutive Writers Guild Awards for his reporting. Boyer’s New Yorker articles have been included in the anthologies The Best American Political Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Spiritual Writing and Best American Crime Writing. He is at work on a book about American evangelism.