- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

The Columbia's destruction is a tragedy, but thanks to former President Reagan it is not a space crisis. This was not so in 1986, when the Challenger's loss was one of a series of space program setbacks that created a national security crisis. In less than 12 months, the Shuttle, the Delta, the Atlas-Centaur and the Titan programs all had catastrophic launch losses. Subsequent probes and groundings delayed deployment of vital national security satellites, including the Global Positioning System, and created a multi-year backlog for commercial and communication satellite launches.
Moreover, the ability to recover quickly by building new rockets was hampered because NASA had stalled privatization of expendable launch vehicle production lines. They had been mothballed and skilled workers let go. The spare rocket parts left in various warehouses around the country amounted to less than a dozen rockets.
The cause of this crisis of spacelift was NASA's effort to monopolize U.S. space access with its overly ambitious and always-flawed shuttle program. The shuttle is an amazing feat of engineering, but it has never fulfilled its original promise. The shuttle was NASA's plan to create a routine "space transportation system." It would help pay for itself by charging other countries and commercial companies for satellite launches. NASA would also recoup money from other government agencies like the Pentagon or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for launching their payloads. NASA managers projected up to 24 shuttle launches annually.
Before the Challenger explosion, Mr. Reagan signed off on a policy that made NASA the government's exclusive agency for space launch services. Mr. Reagan tried to keep expendable rocket factories running by privatizing them. NSDD-94, signed in May 1983, set a policy of commercialization so that private companies could operate the rocket factories and sell launch services. Unfortunately, Mr. Reagan left the power to implement the policy in NASA's hands.
NASA didn't want private companies competing with the shuttle for satellite customers. Despite strong interest from private companies, from 1983 through 1986 NASA never turned over a production line. So, when the Challenger exploded, America faced a space lift crisis. NASA's desire to monopolize space access and compete for satellite customers helped cause the Challenger tragedy. The Rogers Commission final report says "the nation's reliance on the shuttle as its principal space launch capability created a relentless pressure on NASA to increase the flight rate. Such reliance on a single launch capacity should be avoided in the future."
(Much of the pressure was self-generated. Even after the Challenger accident, NASA briefed Reagan White House officials that it had the capacity to fly off the backlog of satellites on its manifest in record time. Never mind that the shuttle had never achieved its projected flight rate before the Challenger crisis. NASA confidently told the NSC it could exceed past performance.)
After the Challenger disaster, Mr. Reagan ordered a broad review of national space policy. The resulting national security decision directive fundamentally altered the space program's future.
Wisely, Mr. Reagan rejected NASA's bid to maintain the space status quo. Instead, he authorized the Air Force to acquire its own fleets of expendable rockets and build up its Space Command. To encourage use of expendable rockets and minimize risks on the shuttle from mishaps during satellite launches one astronaut called the procedure the equivalent of arming a bomb inside the cargo bay Mr. Reagan barred all commercial satellites from the shuttle except those already built exclusively for the STS cargo hold.
The shuttle had only been operational for four years, but already it was far less than the routine space transportation system its creators envisioned. Since Challenger, our nation's commercial and military reliance on space-based systems has grown. So has our launch capacity. Our expendable rockets have been upgraded. Production lines are no longer mothballed. The shuttle can be grounded for months or years, and we will still have access to space.
Unlike the Rogers Commission, which operated in the spotlight, Mr. Reagan's new national space policy drew little notice outside government and aerospace circles. But it is the sole reason that our space program today is sufficiently robust to weather the Columbia's loss and possible long-term grounding of the shuttle fleet without damaging our ability to field military and intelligence satellites.
The Bush White House would do well to emulate Mr. Reagan's example and thoroughly re-examine our space policy. There are alternatives to the shuttle that can give us a robust space program that includes manned flight. Now is the time to explore them fully.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He is an author and television producer.

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