Shuttle To The Dustbin

Discovery photographed from the ISS moments before docking
The space shuttle Discovery is gearing up for a return to earth on Monday morning amid concerns about the safety of reentry, the future of the shuttle program, and the future of NASA’s manned space program. The mission to the International Space Station was marked by an unprecedent mission outside the spacecraft to repair the heat tiles near the nose cone of the orbiter. After two years of testing and redesign, NASA still couldn’t keep large chunks of foam from striking the shuttle during liftoff. The problem appears unsolvable, and NASA ordered the grounding fo the entire fleet pending further investigation of this fatal problem.

Shuttle Launch at SunsetFor a look at the an incredible piece of writing from Idle Words about the pointless risks and incredible costs of NASA’s shuttle program. Maciej Ceglowski wrote an excellent examination of the shuttle program, looking at the design compromises that make the shuttle exceedingly complex and dangerous to use, and the seemingly ridiculous ‘science’ that astronauts engage in while in orbit. While they take their temperature and blood pressure, eat special foods and chit chat with grade school students, any serious science experiments done on shuttle missions are accomplished by simply switching a button and collecting the data back on earth. It seems like most of what the astronauts do in orbit is prove we can put people in orbit for outrageous sums of money.

 Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi makes paper cranes and plays games in orbit
Why do we need to take insane risks to accomplish what is essentially remote control science that could be deployed on a satellite? Oh that’s right, because we need the shuttle to go to the International Space Station. But what’s the purpose of the ISS? Oh right, to give the space shuttle something to visit. Man, that just makes my head spin. Following the Columbia accident NASA cancelled all shuttle missions that did not head to the ISS for safety concerns. This killed one mission that was absolutely vital for science, a planned upgrade and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope to extend the working life of a priceless scientific research tool. Now our only extraterrestrial optical telescope, which has produced far more science than all the shuttle missions combined, is going to die a slow death as its gyroscopes fail and it tumbles out of orbit. But at least the space station is still up there, keeping Russia’s space program afloat with massive U.S. subsidies.

It’s time to mothball the shuttle program and reinvest that money into a cheaper orbital vehicle. Designs already exist that split the crew and payload functions of the shuttle into two seperate vehicles. Both are traditional rocket launch stacks, with the crew compartment or payload above the dangerous rocket engines and solid fuel boosters that caused the two shuttle disasters. In addition the crew lift vehicle would include an emergency escape rocket, similar to the early NASA launches, that could propel the crew away from the rocket in the event of an explosion. This is a level of safety that the shuttle has never had.

But don’t look to NASA for these judgement calls. The entire agency seems fixated on keeping the shuttle fleet flying in spite of the risks and astronomical costs associated with maintenance and launch. And don’t expect the Federal government to make the decision either. Those billions of dollars spent on the shuttle program sustain the economies of several states, numerous military-industrial complex companies, thousands of employees, and thousands of private contractors. It’s a great big pork barrel flying into the sky.

Photo of Discovery's cargo bay taken from the ISS

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