Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

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Shuttle to Nowhere

patgund sent me an article on the Columbia board's recommendations. The big one seems to be to "establish an independent Technical Engineering Authority" to decide whether the Shuttle can safely launch.

I don't think that's going to help a bit.

Driving my car in LA traffic is dangerous but I take the risk because the benefit (getting groceries, keeping my job, whatever) outweighs the risk. All good decisions get made that way, weighing the costs and risks against the benefits. NASA can't do that because there's no real benefit to most Shuttle flights.

Right now Shuttle and Space Station exist to maintain payrolls in specific congressional districts. They're not creating a base for further exploration or industrialization. Science capabilities have been stripped away until Columbia wound up doing high-school science fair experiments. Any satellite can find a cheaper ride than Shuttle. There's no mission left.

If there is a specific mission we want to do it's probably cheaper and quicker to start from scratch than to do it with the Shuttle. But that mission has to be something that justifies spending money and risking lives. Reelecting congressmen and keeping bureaucrats employed isn't worth it.

There is one benefit from flying the Shuttle that matters to a lot of people--as long it keeps going America has a presence in space, it hasn't retreated from the sky. That doesn't work for me. We had a hiatus in spaceflight in the 70s and started flying again. Saturn and Skylab were shut down so the Shuttle could be built. Now we're in the same situation with the opposite decision--Shuttle keeps flying and it sucks up all the money, talent, energy that could go into creating a better way to get to space.

Even with the small benefits Shuttle missions can have, we have to ask if they justify the price. NASA spends billions every year supporting Shuttle ops, whether it flies or not. It's too labor-intensive to ever be flown cheaply. It's too dangerous a design to ever be flown safely (that we've only lost two is a testament to how smart and dedicated many people at NASA are). This article lists many other design flaws that will eventually destroy a shuttle even if the foam problem is fixed.

It's time for the Air & Space Museum to build another wing and put a shuttle on display. The rest can be placed next to the Saturn V lawn ornaments. We have to clear the way for new systems. NASA should handle access to space like other agencies handle their travel needs--buy from a commercial supplier, and use more than one supplier so they're not hostage to a single-point failure. If we want to go Mars or to the Moon again, or even to have a space station that does useful work, the X-prize or the air cargo industry are better models than the Apollo program or military procurement.

If we do that there'll be some chance that humans will stand on the moon in my daughter's lifetime.

Tags: engineering, space
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