Monday, July 11, 2011

Space Shuttle: The End of a Mediocre Era

Soon after the end of the Space Shuttle program, space lovers all over the world are reacting quite strongly to the end of the a program that has been flying since before I was born. Massive crowds intended to go see the last launch of Atlantis, and I'm sure STS-135 will become a a famous occasion commemorated by parties among space geeks. I'd like to throw a party as well - an "it's finally over" party. Though the future of US manned spaceflight is certainly bleak, the shuttle program represented pretty much everything that's been wrong with NASA since the Apollo program ended, and the long break between now and Orion might very well give us a chance to clear off the weight of the last few decades and fix the deep institutional problems in their manned spaceflight division once and for all.

In theory, a reusable launch vehicle is a great idea. After all, the Saturn V moon rockets weighed nearly seven million pounds fully loaded and cost over a billion dollars after adjusting for inflation, yet they were only good for one mission! The idea of a comparable craft which could do mission after mission for nothing more than the cost of a fuel top-off seemed like an ideal goal back in the late sixties, when our goal of a moon landing was well within our reach and NASA's budget was already beginning to shrink.

If you don't think too hard about what's involved in spaceflight, it's a great idea. Unfortunately, current space travel means that the rocket must endure a laundry list of extreme temperatures and forces both inside and outside the craft, and manned spaceflight makes it even more difficult by tacking on a bunch of extra weight in the form of crew compartments and supplies for its extremely fragile human payload. And while it's one thing to build a rocket that can withstand all of that once, it's another thing altogether to build one that can safely go through those stresses dozens of times. We couldn't do it back then and we still can't do it today.

Now, I won't say it was a COMPLETELY doomed effort from the start. But considering that they were building a craft completely unlike any previous rocket design, there was no way they were going to meet their ambitious goals within the budget they were given, and they knew it. Even the scaled-down plan that eventually became the space shuttle was probably too much to handle with the resources at hand, but NASA staff really wanted a reusable vehicle and made many cost and performance estimates that proved to be far too optimistic.

The finished product proved to be significantly more expensive than it was on paper, and carried smaller loads less often than had been planned. Moreover, it required months of refurbishing and repair between flights. The thermal tiles had to be replaced after a reentry, and major engine components had to be similarly rebuilt before they could be deemed safe to fly again. All of those problems, however, would have been forgivable if not for the usual cultural problems in NASA that led them to insist on the shuttle program no matter what, even going so far as to ignore safety issues caused by vehicle defects.

In order to justify keeping the shuttle, NASA used it for as many missions as possible, even though most of them amounted to little more than "space trucker" jobs, hauling satellites or supplies that could have been handled more efficiently by a less expensive unmanned rocket. In fact, the existence of the space shuttle and NASA's willingness to use it for station resupply are probably what prevented the US from developing an unmanned freighter similar to the Russian Progress resupply ship or the European Automated Transfer Vehicle.

And the real kicker of it all? Many of these problems were predicted before Columbia's first flight!

On a more somber note, whatever your opinion is on any particular aspect of the space program, we shouldn't forget the men and women who make it great - not just the astronauts who fly the rockets and the engineers who build them, but the thousands of staffers and workers who turned a pile of half-assembled parts fresh out of a factory into a high-precision machine sitting on a complex launchpad system.

While preparing for the last launch of Endeavor, the launchpad suffered its first fatality since the launch of STS-1 in 1981, when worker James Vanover committed suicide by jumping from the launch complex, due to experiencing health problems and being laid off after almost 30 years of work at Kennedy Space Center. Unlike the final crews of Challenger and Columbia, he won't be a national hero mourned by the entire nation, and his name won't appear in the history books. Will anyone remember his tragedy after a week? The end of the shuttle program and the lack of any immediate successor means a whole lot more than just not launching any astronauts for a few years - it means that hundreds of dedicated space industry workers will be getting pink slips with nothing to show for it, and most of the country won't even notice.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, the real problem isn't that the space shuttle wasn't optimized, but rather that now we don't have a space program at all.

    Nice blog, by the way. I saw you link to it twice before, but I didn't realize it was yours.