Was the space shuttle worth it?

As the space shuttle heads for retirement, Jim Meigs, editor-in-chief of PM"™s US edition, traces its bold accomplishments "“ and failures.
Date:1 July 2011 Tags:, , , , , , ,

The space shuttle was a noble experiment that went on far too long. By Jim Meigs

First, some numbers: when the programme retires this month, the fleet of five space shuttles will have flown 135 missions, made more than 20 000 orbits of the Earth, carried 363 people (some multiple times) and spent a total of more than 1 300 days aloft. At peak thrust, the shuttle’s engines burn nearly 300 000 kg of solid fuel and 170 000 litres of liquid hydrogen every minute, accelerating the massive craft from 0 to 28 160 km/h – and into orbit – in 8,5 minutes. The shuttle’s longest mission lasted more than 17 days. Its shortest was, sadly, also its best-known: the doomed 1-minute, 13-second flight of the Challenger in 1986. Between the Challenger disaster and the loss of Columbia in 2003, the shuttle programme has cost the lives of 14 astronauts.

For most Americans who, like me, believe human space flight is vital to their future, the shuttle remains a flying contradiction. On the one hand, it is an elegant and ambitious feat of engineering, able to carry large crews and big cargos, launch and retrieve satellites, and then land on a runway when it returns to Earth. Yet the shuttle is also an ungainly and impossibly delicate piece of hardware. (One launch was delayed because of damage from woodpeckers.) Conceived as a practical, affordable workhorse, it turned out to be unreliable and, with total costs of well over R7 billion per launch, wickedly expensive. And, of course, dangerous, with an overall failure rate of one per 67 missions.

As we go to press, Nasa is preparing for what’s expected to be the shuttle’s final mission, so it’s time to ask this question: can we do better next time? The fact that Nasa is ending the shuttle programme before fully developing the next generation of space vehicle represents an egregious failure in planning. But it also presents an opportunity. What can we learn from the shuttle that will help the United States develop more agile and affordable space transportation?

The shuttle began as a daring and innovative concept. Although the US Air Force had experimented with planes that could exit and re-enter the atmosphere, Nasa, like the Soviet space agency, focused on rockets. Astronauts sat in capsules high atop multistage launch vehicles (like “Spam in a can”, as Chuck Yeager and other aviators of the time sneered). All components except the capsules were expendable; that is, destroyed during flight. And the capsules’ re-entry was ballistic – they fell, rather than flew, back to Earth.

By the 1970s, when the shuttle was being built, expendable rockets routinely launched satellites and had carried men to the Moon. Still, Nasa hoped a reusable spacecraft could lower costs dramatically, making space travel almost routine. The agency envisioned launches occurring roughly once a week.

But alarms were raised early on. Space policy writer Gregg Easterbrook labelled the shuttle a “death trap” in 1981, before it ever flew, and argued that the programme should be shut down. Then the 1986 explosion of the Challenger put the programme into permanent go-slow status. By the early 1990s, it was clear that the shuttle would never become the practical workhorse of Nasa’s dreams.

So why didn’t they just retire it? Perversely, the high cost of the programme was one key to its long survival. Some 15 000 contractual employees and 2 000 civil servants were needed to keep the shuttle running. Many of those contractors and workers were strategically distributed across a belt of politically potent states from Florida to California. And those states’ congressional leaders – such as Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison – were dependable defenders of the shuttle. Ironically, a leaner, more affordable space vehicle would probably have garnered less support in Congress.

In the end, the shuttle’s legacy encompasses both the best and the worst of Nasa. The agency was courageous to launch the project. But later, Nasa’s inability to admit the shuttle’s failures revealed a worrisome tendency toward bureaucratic inertia. If the United States is to be a space-faring nation, its space agency needs to be far more nimble.

On the route to innovation, entrepreneurs know that even good ideas usually have to be tweaked, modified and sometimes abandoned. “When something is attempted for the first time, there will be failures,” shuttle commander Colonel Eileen Collins recently told PM. “That is part of the flight test process.” The programme had many successes – large crews executed complex missions, including facilitating the building of the International Space Station and keeping the Hubble telescope in service. And even the shuttle’s failures delivered valuable lessons, from the damage debris could cause to heat shields to the need for an effective escape system. Collins, who flew four missions (including the first after the loss of Columbia), says, “We learned so much about what to design in or out next time.”

Right now, Nasa seems to be pursuing a smart strategy: turning partly to private industry to build and launch new generations of spacecraft. In the early days of airmail, the US Post Office used its own planes and pilots. But a 1925 law mandated that the Post Office simply set a rate it would pay private companies to carry the mail. Aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and entrepreneurs like William Boeing seized the challenge, launching an era of aviation breakthroughs.

Instead of specifying particular spacecraft designs, Nasa needs to define its missions, then take bids from private contractors that can innovate quickly – and retire unsuccessful experiments just as fast. Today, private companies routinely launch satellites at competitive prices, while innovative outfits such as XCOR Aerospace, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Armadillo Aerospace are building new launch vehicles. And businesses are already competing to carry paying passengers into space. In the future, Nasa may be just one client among many hiring their services.

As the shuttle prepares for its final flight, let’s remember to salute the innovation of its design and the dedication of the astronauts who flew it. The shuttle was a bold experiment. But it kept flying far too long. We can do better next time.

Video: Watch the Challenger tragedy shortly after lift-off on 28 January 1986.

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