Saturday, 30 November 2013

Reflections on the End of the Space Shuttle Program

The shuttle Columbia casts a shadow on the sky during its launch on November 11, 1982, for the STS-5 mission. Chris Gainor photo.

Originally Published July 14, 2011

As the United States space shuttle program ends after 30 years of flying, many observers have called the shuttle a failure. In many respects, that harsh judgment is correct, but a fair assessment of the shuttle leads to a more nuanced conclusion.

The shuttle’s reputation suffers because it followed the six Apollo landings on the Moon, the high point of NASA’s existence, when the U.S. space agency met President John F. Kennedy’s audacious – and unambiguous – goal of landing a man on the moon in the 1960s and returning him safely to the Earth.

When President Richard Nixon launched the shuttle program in 1972, he gave the shuttle the goals of taking “the astronautical costs out of astronautics” and of revolutionizing “transportation into near space, by routinizing it.”

The shuttle clearly failed in its first goal, because the costs of launching a payload on the shuttle remained for all practical purposes as high as they were in the 1960s using rockets that were thrown away after each flight. The end of the shuttle means that all satellites and spacecraft will go into space atop expensive expendable launch vehicles as they did before the shuttle program.

NASA’s promise to meet Nixon’s cost cutting goal was arguably far more audacious than the lunar landing goal met by Apollo. Building a vehicle that could leave Earth’s surface and atmosphere, go into orbit at a speed of nearly 28,000 km per hour, return to a stop back on the ground, and then repeat the feat, is a very tall order. 

Meeting this goal was difficult enough without the limits placed on NASA’s budget in the 1970s. To develop the shuttle with limited development budgets, NASA had to agree to a shuttle with a throwaway fuel tank and solid fuel boosters in place of NASA’s original concept of a piloted reusable booster vehicle. These compromises resulted in very high operating costs for the shuttle that have many times outstripped the savings achieved in the 1970s.

To win approval from the president and Congress, NASA had to bring the U.S. Air Force on board the shuttle program. The result of the air force’s demand for a shuttle that could return to its launch site after one orbit was a shuttle orbiter with delta wings and fragile tiles that could handle very high re-entry heat loads. The shuttle became heavier, more complicated, more delicate and more dangerous than it needed to be.

By its very design, the shuttle failed to meet its goal of greatly lowering costs. Its design also betrayed NASA’s hopes of a vehicle that could be quickly turned around like an airliner and re-launched.

By adopting an ‘if-we-build-it-they-will-come’ philosophy, NASA continued to keep the hope alive that the shuttle would meet its quick turnaround goal. This illusion came to an end on January 28, 1986, when the shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after launch, killing its crew of seven. The air force quickly withdrew from the shuttle program and a presidential order removed commercial payloads from the shuttle.

NASA rebounded from this setback by turning the shuttle to NASA’s original goal for it, building a space station, in this case the International Space Station, a major if controversial achievement that will outlive the shuttle. The loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven in 2003 led to the decision to bring the shuttle program to an end when the construction of the space station was complete.

The unstated reason behind Nixon’s 1972 decision to begin the shuttle program was to pull the U.S. out of an aerospace recession caused by the end of the Apollo program and reductions in defense spending. The shuttle program became a great success as a jobs program for the aerospace industry in California, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere.

Each NASA facility and contractor plant has been protected by powerful members of Congress. Ironically, most of them are Republicans who usually claim to support free markets and smaller governments.

In its 30 years of operation, the shuttle flew an average of four-and-a-half times a year, far less than the weekly access to orbit that NASA promised in the 1970s. The shuttle carried 355 different people 852 times into space in its 135 flights. Those people came from 16 different countries.

One of those countries was Canada, which sent eight astronauts to fly on board the shuttle. When the shuttle program began, Canada had no plans at all to send anyone into space, and even after Canada joined the shuttle program by agreeing to build the shuttle’s robot arm, the U.S. government had to persuade the Canadian government to agree to fly astronauts on the shuttle.

The robot arm, which later became known as the Canadarm, was a success and has become a symbol of Canadian high-tech excellence that will live on through a successor robot manipulator operating on board the space station.

While the shuttle meant that the U.S. astronaut corps was enlarged from its original group of white male test pilots to include scientists, women and members of visible minorities, astronauts remained highly trained and highly fit people. With only a few exceptions, everyone who flew on board the shuttle was a professional astronaut. 

The illusion that the shuttle would open access to space to average people – symbolized by the school teacher who flew aboard Challenger on its final flight – was shattered with the loss of Challenger and its crew.

Although shuttle flights never became routine, they appeared routine enough for the media and most people to regard shuttle flights as everyday events. The only reason news networks continued to cover shuttle launches was because of the possibility of a catastrophe. 

While astronauts are admired and many people look forward to flights to the Moon or Mars, the fact is that the public doesn’t support increasing funding for space travel. Indeed, in today’s harsh economic climate, many question the need to spend any public funds on the shuttle and the space station.

A major reason why few people support more spending on space travel is simply that they know that they have virtually no chance of traveling into space. In 50 years of human space flight, only 523 people have flown into space. That means about 10 new people a year get to venture into space.

Before larger numbers of people can fly into space, the cost barrier for spaceflight will have to be brought down. The shuttle was an attempt to breach that barrier, but a failed one. Other attempts by NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense and private industry to break the cost barrier have also failed.

The funds and talent that were spent on the shuttle for 30 years became an obstacle to a new generation of spacecraft needed to open up space to more people. Those in Congress who protected and tried to micro-manage the shuttle program are now mounting a rearguard action to save expensive rocket and spacecraft programs set up by the George W. Bush Administration to replace the shuttle.

By looking to the private sector to carry people into space in the future, President Barack Obama and his administration have recognized that maintaining a jobs program protected by members of Congress is not the way to move the U.S. space program forward. 

Obama’s policy also recognizes that governments will not win public support for new space programs to replace the shuttle, especially in a time of economic hardship and growing needs for social and security services.

The end of the shuttle program is sad for those of us who have closely followed this technological marvel for more than a generation. But in order for space exploration to move ahead and for space to be opened to more people, the shuttle program must come to an end.

Human space travel will go on with the International Space Station, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is getting ready to command the station starting next year. 

Robotic space exploration is also going strong. The Dawn spacecraft is arriving at the asteroid Vesta, and other craft are exploring Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn. A space probe is on its way to Pluto, and new spacecraft are being readied for flights to Mars and Jupiter. And planet Earth has its own space infrastructure for remote sensing, weather forecasting, communications, and GPS navigation, among other things.

New private sector space transportation providers such as SpaceX are coming forward, but it will take them years to make the next American-built spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit. Elsewhere, companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are developing vehicles that will carry tourists on suborbital hops into space with the hope that growing demand might lead to an orbital tourism industry. 

For the next few years, Americans will have to depend on Russian spacecraft to reach the International Space Station as the new private sector space transportation providers develop their vehicles. The deadlock that has developed between the Obama Administration and Congress over space transportation policy will only delay the day when American spacecraft again carry Americans and others into space.

America’s deadlock over space transportation affects other space programs, too. The Canadian government had promised three years ago to develop a new policy for Canada’s space program. That policy remains in limbo, awaiting a resolution of the space transportation dispute in Washington. 

At the same time, Russia’s space program is slowly regaining momentum, China is launching its own taikonauts into space, and India is becoming a space power. The European Space Agency and Japan also have highly developed space programs, but economic problems may limit their ambitions in the immediate future. Canada will have a number of options for continuing its astronaut program, not all of them involving NASA.

As the era of human space flight enters its second half-century this year, the only certainty is that major changes are coming.

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