So long, farewell, we’ll miss you, and… good riddance?

22 July 2011
Categories: Space exploration

This week Atlantis made the final landing of the thirty-year-long Space Shuttle program. It was a momentous day; thousands of people flocked to the Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers to witness the end of an era. Fully aware of the historic nature of the event, everyone involved shared some finely crafted words, including these from NASA commentator Rob Navias as the Shuttle rolled out on Runway 15:

“Having fired the imagination of a generation, a ship like no other, its place in history secured, the Space Shuttle pulls into port for the last time, its voyage at an end.”

When Commander Chris Ferguson spoke an uncharacteristically wordy version of the standard end-of-mission call “WHEELS STOP,” I—like many Americans—burst into tears. The finality of the moment, combined with the uncertainty of the future of American human spaceflight, was deeply emotional. Space Shuttle has been, as a friend put it so aptly, “our generation’s technological icon,” pervading everything to do with space for three-quarters of my life—nine-tenths if we go back to the 1972 announcement by President Nixon that got the ball rolling.

I’m proud of what the United States has accomplished in spaceflight, and I sincerely hope that this country continues in a leadership role for future spaceflight endeavours. But in the back of my mind, even as my tears dried, I felt a deeper regret—not for Thursday’s closure, but for what might have been.

Someday, if humanity has sufficient luck and foresight, we’ll find a way to live beyond this planet before we make it so uninhabitable that we kill ourselves off. If that happens—and I’m not confident it will, but that’s a different subject—I suspect that those humans living on such far-flung worlds as Mars and Titan and (apologies to A. C. Clarke) Europa and perhaps even beyond this solar system will look back on their distant past, the early days of human spaceflight, and remember the Shuttle and say, “What the heck were they thinking?”

Because, putting aside all tributes to an amazing piece of technology and the hard work of thousands that made it possible, it must be said: Space Shuttle was, from its inception through its final flight, a boondoggle.

It was born on a promise of efficient and economical access to space, a promise it was never capable of delivering. Turnaround time, theoretically touted as less than two weeks, rarely fell below two months, and usually ran to four or five.

It was, as I once heard it called, “a camel—a horse designed by committee.” Compromises and political necessities, fettered only by engineering realities, held sway over the design process. The military imposed its own set of rules, even though the final design had a cargo bay too small to contain the tour-bus-sized spy satellites the DOD was already building. By the time it flew, Space Shuttle was a delivery vehicle that satisfied the needs of none of its intended customers.

It was a transport without a destination. The original proposal was for a spaceplane and a space station for it to go to, yet for the first seventeen years of Space Shuttle operation there was no International Space Station in orbit. (For five years prior, the Soviet/Russian Mir acted as an occasional stand-in, mainly as an excuse to prop up a faltering Russian space industry.)

It was dangerous to fly, even by “spaceflight is inherently dangerous” standards. No launch escape system was included, despite having been standard on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—and today’s Soyuz vehicles too. And, as the crew of Columbia fatefully discovered, strapping life-supporting hardware to the side (rather than the nose) of any launch vehicle, all of which tend to shed debris during launch, is a Very Bad Idea.

I could go on, but the point is this: if the United States had chosen instead to continue with stripped-down, Earth-orbit-capable Apollo-style spacecraft; stuck with existing launch vehicles and worked to improve and simplify them, maintaining a human-rated launch capability using expendable rockets; and put its effort into constructing a space station that could serve as both science laboratory and orbital way-station to deep space; then where would we be today?

Figure a few years to get started; the first module might not have flown until 1975 or so (unless Skylab became module 1, in which case 1973; but no matter). Get the Russians on board, as a more substantial (and genuine) act of détente than Apollo–Soyuz, and figure construction would take about as long as ISS—fourteen years.

That puts completion at 1989. More than twenty years ago, to get us to the point where we are now. And yet ahead of where we are now as well, because we still would have had usable flight hardware, like the Russians do with Soyuz. We would not have been staring down a gauntlet of untold years before private enterprise might fill the launch gap, as we are staring now. NASA estimates it will be five years or so until human spaceflight from American shores resumes; I’ll wager it will be at least ten years, perhaps as many as fifteen—at which point, ISS will be nearing retirement.

Where will America go next? There is no clear answer to that question. U.S. space policy is in “disarray,” to put it mildly. Massive budget cuts are coming to NASA. Robotic exploration, for all its scientific advancement, doesn’t spark the public interest: the arrival of the Dawn spacecraft at asteroid Vesta last week was met by a yawning apathy—even from me, and I have a distinct, specific interest in that particular mission.

That’s what makes me truly melancholy today. Not the end of the Space Shuttle program—it had a good run, and a lot of good things came out of it. Rather, the broad chasm standing before us, one lacking exploration to spark the imagination, challenges to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. As the classic IMAX film put it, “The Dream Is Alive.” But for how long?

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