Goodbye Space Shuttle

July 16th, 2011

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NASA’s Space Shuttle program has come to an end. I’m certainly feeling nostalgic already, but unlike a handful of legislators from Florida and Texas, I feel the smart thing to do is cleanly end the program. In a previous post about NASA’s ’70s era space station Skylab, I mentioned that program was developed under the assumption a future Space Shuttle would be able to service the orbiting outpost. This was all part of a grand NASA vision of space exploration that emerged during the ’70s. After the success of the Apollo program, NASA began to plan for the next phase of launching people into space, which included ambitious plans to put astronauts into long term orbit. Unfortunately, the Shuttle program suffered numerous delays in the ’70s and the Skylab program died before a working partnership could be developed. When the first Shuttle launched in 1981, it was unclear exactly what role it would be filling within a larger space program. At first, it seemed like the Shuttle could be used to put super secret spy satellites into orbit. But after the Challenger accident in 1986, the Air Force and the intelligence community decided they didn’t want to rely on the Shuttle, so they went back to launching on traditional rockets like the Delta. Without a major sponsor like the military, the Shuttle lacked a clear purpose. It failed to deliver on the promise of making cargo hauling cheaper, so commercial satellites continued to ride into space atop conventional, and unmanned, expendable rockets. Another failure of the program was safety. The Shuttle was not originally designed with a crew escape system, unlike all of the other space vehicles previously developed. While such a system probably would not have saved the crews of the Challenger and Columbia, it was a serious short coming that was never fully addressed. Finally, the cost of the Shuttle program was far more than anyone anticipated. The work required to make a Shuttle (and solid fuel boosters) ready for launch was crazy expensive.

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Despite all the shortcoming of the Shuttle program, it marked a huge technical achievement. The complexity of all the systems that had to work together for a successful mission was really amazing and ultimately, I believe, made NASA a stronger agency. However, I think that for political reasons the Shuttle program was maintained longer than it should have. We need to move forward with a newer, and simpler, manned space program. Even though I have trashed commercial ventures like Space-X in the past, they have demonstrated a growing capacity to be able to step in and offer new cargo and crew launch options. I think the future of NASA’s manned space program should be all about diversity — in a decade I anticipate there will be a number of options for putting someone into orbit. It was a bad idea to rely on a single launch platform like the Shuttle, so I hope we move away from that model.

Entry Filed under: Obsolete Technology, Science

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