The next five years will determine, for good or ill, the future of U.S. manned space exploration for decades to come. More significant, a confluence of forces will accelerate that process.
Several of these forces rely on the decisions of Michael Griffin, NASA’s administrator. Just as crucial will be the actions of Congress and the public, and the success or failure of several private entrepreneurs, including a former programmer who is trying to rebuild the American rocket industry single-handed.
Consider first the decisions of Griffin. He faces a serious problem trying to complete and supply the International Space Station. Because his predecessor, Sean O’Keefe, chose to rely solely on the space shuttle to ferry supplies, crew and new construction modules to the station, Griffin remains entirely dependent on the Russians, because the trio of remaining shuttles was grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003.
Worse, unless Griffin can get a shuttle replacement designed and built by 2010, he will have no way to ferry supplies or crew to ISS after that, if the shuttle is retired that year as planned.
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