Now that the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery is safely back on terra firma (along with the entire shuttle fleet, which has once again been grounded over safety concerns), arguments over the future viability of the Shuttle program have resumed in earnest. By far, my favorite swipe at NASA to date has to be today’s Wall Street Journal opinion column (subscription required) by Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer. Mr Hickam argues that many NASA engineers would like to see the shuttle program shelved in favor of a newer and better vehicle, but they are blocked in their efforts by a “failed culture” within the agency that demands support for the Shuttle.

I love the astronauts, too. They’re brave and they’re smart and some of them are even my friends. Some are even engineers. But there are too many of them (around 100, an awful lot for a program that has flown but once in the past two years) and they are mostly acolytes of the space shuttle. If the shuttles were retired, most astronauts would be very much out on a bureaucratic limb, their training obsolete, their chances of getting into space again, or for the first time, much reduced. Bear that in mind the next time you hear an astronaut support the shuttle even though the U.S. is presently fourth in the ability to put humans reliably into space, behind Russia, China, and Burt Rutan.

touché.

So let’s put the shuttles on the shelf right away and give engineers the gift of designing and building new ships to carry humans into space. These are already on the drawing boards and I believe NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (an engineer) is itching to make them a reality.

I tend to agree that NASA needs to rethink the shuttle program, but the good news is that we don’t have to wait for NASA’s engineers to begin designing vehicles that will launch the next stage of manned spaceflight.