Nine Years Without a NASA Crew Launch: What Just Happened?

written by David Mixson

The Space Shuttle blasted off into space for the last time on June 8, 2011 on the STS-135 mission. The next flight that carried astronauts into space from American soil wasn’t until May 30, 2020 (nine years later) on the SpaceX Demo-2 mission that took crew to the International Space Station.

Just in case you missed that last point, let me make it again. No humans were launched into space from American soil between 2011 and 2020.

Compared to Apollo

Yesterday’s NASA started from scratch—with 1960s technology, almost no experience with rockets, and computers with less computing power than your smartphone—and made it to the moon in eight years.

Today’s NASA just went nine years without a vehicle to launch humans into low earth orbit. Houston, we have a problem.

This gap in NASA’s capability to launch astronauts into space is a flaming indicator that things aren’t right inside the agency.

The Real Issue

Frankly, the issue wasn’t that we canceled the Shuttle.1 It was getting old. The failure was that NASA didn’t have a vehicle to replace it when we did—even though we started looking at Shuttle replacements in the 1990s.

What Happened?

Many on the inside would argue that it’s because companies didn’t do what they said they would do, that politicians didn’t give NASA enough money, or that the public doesn’t care about space like they used to.

Those are just excuses. The only plausible reason for NASA being without a launch vehicle for so long is that the NASA of today doesn’t have the capability to design and build one.

It’s the hard truth.

We started looking at vehicle designs to replace the Shuttle in the early 1990s. Shouldn’t we have something by now? And if I had a single bullet point to highlight the problem, it wouldn’t be that the people at NASA are inept. It would be that the processes inside the agency are destroying it.

At at least one NASA center, droves of engineers and managers have worked on nothing but canceled program after canceled program for their entire careers. All this feeds on itself, and you end up using the same processes and people on the next launch vehicle program.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what happens next. It, too, gets canceled. It’s a vicious cycle.

Military Comparisons

Why is it that the United States Army can design and build the best tanks in the world, the Navy can build the best aircraft carriers, and the Air Force can build the best fighter jets, but NASA wasn’t able to build a Shuttle replacement before it was canceled?

I know what you’re thinking—not enough budget?

That’s certainly what the NASA Senior Leadership Team would like for you to believe—but that’s just smoke and mirrors. The problem at NASA isn’t that we need more money.

It’s much bigger than that.

Canceling the Shuttle without a replacement was like shutting down an auto manufacturing plant and laying off all your workers while you design a new model that’s expected to be in production in five years. Not only was it a bad for inspiring our youth, but NASA lost skilled technicians and flight controllers that we’ll never be able to assemble again for the next vehicle.

New Launch Vehicles

The launch vehicle that was supposed to replace the Shuttle was called Ares, and it was part of a larger suite of vehicles in the Constellation program that was supposed to be able to carry payloads and people into low earth orbit, the moon, Mars, or even to an asteroid.

Originally, it was scheduled to fly in 2015, but it was canceled in 2010 for a host of performance, cost, and schedule reasons. It was a traditional cost-plus type contract.

In 2011, Old Space NASA started a new launch vehicle program called the Space Launch System (SLS). It was originally scheduled to fly in 2017. The first unmanned configuration of SLS in the Artemis program blasted off from Florida five years later on November 16, 2022. The first crewed mission, Artemis 2, is scheduled to launch in November 2024.

It, too, is an Old Space cost-plus type contract. I’ll have more to say about SLS in future articles.

The Bottom Line

Somewhere along the way, NASA has lost its way. It started before the Shuttle was canceled, but it’s gotten worse since. Sure, the Shuttle had its fair share of haters who thought it was too expensive and never reached the advertised flight rate.

But when it was still flying, there was a sense of pride in the agency. It vanished once it stopped.

A True Story

Several months ago, I was having a beer with a friend of my son’s who’s finishing up Law School. During the conversation, I mentioned that NASA went nine years without the capability of launching astronauts into space and that we had to rely on the Russians to ferry supplies and crew to/from the International Space Station (ISS).

I was just saying it as a matter of fact, figuring everyone knew that already. I believe we were talking about the war with Ukraine.

As I continued with my thoughts, he interrupted me.

“What do you mean?” he said. “I knew the Shuttle stopped flying, but I figured NASA had another vehicle in place that was launching astronauts.”

I had to break it to him that NASA didn’t.

His jaw dropped, and he looked at me as though he didn’t fully believe me.

“How did THAT happen?”

I didn’t feel like ruining my IPA, so I changed the subject.

  1. Technically, NASA didn’t cancel the Shuttle program. The president did by zeroing it out in his 2011 budget.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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