20 April 2012


Earlier this week, the space shuttle Discovery arrived in Washington, DC, where it will be placed on permanent static display at the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.  Discovery had completed 39 missions into Earth orbit, and was greeted with cheers and tears as it circled the Capitol complex, not under its own power but mounted upon a transport 747 (see image above, click to enlarge).  It was the end of the 30-year space shuttle era.

Not all regard that end with nostalgia, however.  Following the dramatic successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space missions, the Space Shuttle program was regarded by many (including this observer) as marking time, abdicating exploration in favor of maintenance of the International Space Station, performing science experiments in zero-gravity, and the launch and servicing of satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope.  One columnist characterizes the program as "willed American decline".  

Don't get me wrong ~ the shuttle missions performed necessary mundane tasks.  But where is the vision?  It took us less than ten years to land astronauts on the moon.  During the intervening forty years, could we not have established one or more permanent moon bases, or even have mounted a manned mission to Mars?  The Shuttle program can be likened to the design of the vehicle itself ~ an unlikely assembly of parts trying to fulfill too many tasks, and doing none of them exceptionally.  The Shuttle wasn't a true space ship ~ it had to be lifted aloft with auxiliary rockets, and during the landing phase it had the flight characteristics of a falling brick.  

Worse still, the Shuttle program came nowhere close to its stated goals.  The Shuttle fleet was small, poorly-designed, expensive to build and operate, and dangerous.  As Carol Pinchefsky describes in 5 Horrifying Facts You Didn't Know About the Space Shuttle,

  • The Shuttle killed more people than any other space vehicle in history.  The explosion of the Challenger killed seven people during its 10th mission in 1968.  The explosion of the Columbia killed seven more during re-entry of its 28th mission in 2003.  Out of five Shuttles ~ Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor ~ two met a disastrous and fiery fate.  That's a 40% vehicular failure rate.  To compare, the Apollo I mission resulted in the death of three astronauts during a launch pad test.  The Mercury and Gemini missions had no fatalities.  
  • It was extremely expensive.  Although NASA says that it cost a trifling $450 million to launch each Shuttle mission, other sources find that price tag vastly underestimated.  All five Shuttles flew a total of 135 missions .... [At the Space Shuttle program termination in 2010, it had a total lifetime cost of about $173 billion.  Given that flight rate, this results in a total program cost per flight of $1.3 billion .... One of the many reasons the Shuttles were so expensive was because some of the equipment used to launch, such as the external tank, were non-reusable and had to be replaced with each launch.  Yet another reason is that the equipment was so very old.  Designed in the 1970s and completed in the 1980s, the Shuttle had some modifications over the years, but for the most part, it remained frozen in time .... Over thirty years, some companies go out of business .... Famously, at one point, NASA had to find parts for the Shuttle ~ parts that no one else made anymore ~ on eBay.
  • It never went very high.  The public has this mental image of the Shuttle going somewhere between the Earth and the Moon, and the fact is, it's not true.  The Shuttle had an operational altitude of only 120 to 600 miles.  However, the Shuttle's trip to the International Space Station (ISS) was only a 200-250 mile journey ~ approximately the distance between NYC and Boston.  The Shuttle also flew the Hubble Telescope, which is maintained at an altitude of 350 miles, a little less than the distance from NYC to Norfolk, VA.  In case you don't remember it from science class, the distance between the Earth and the Moon is 238,000 miles.
  • It never worked according to parameters.  Plans for the Space Shuttle were created in 1972 as a way to keep the cost of spaceflight down.  Each Shuttle was supposed to fly fifty missions per year ~ yet it averaged approximately four flights a year.  Each Shuttle was designed for only ten years of life.  Keeping the Shuttle flying for twenty years past expiration date stifled creativity and innovation [and drove up expense and cost lives].
  • It's going to be replaced by something much better.  SpaceX was just given the go-ahead to launch its unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS on April 30th after a recent successful test flight.  SpaceX looks to be the first of many businesses vying for the 'space' that NASA left when it stopped ferrying astronauts.  The result of that [in theory] will be getting more people to orbit, more often, and for a far reduced price .... Instead of building its own spacecraft, NASA will off-load the business of transit to and from space to the private sector .... while the space agency can get back to doing what it does best ~ pushing the frontiers of science and the exploration of space.
It's hard to argue with Pinchefsky's summary of the Space Shuttle program's failures.  It remains to be seen whether privatizing space travel will be desirable or viable.  My lingering doubt is this ~ whenever the profit motive spurs an enterprise, the temptation becomes strong to cut corners and to outsource labor and construction (resulting in cheaply-built components).  That's why the earlier exploration programs (both manned and unmanned) were so successful ~ NASA had direct oversight over quality control.  Stay tuned.

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