Enjoy Your Retirement, Space Shuttle

>> Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I know many of you space loving types thought I should have written something on this subject a long time ago. I don't blame you. I'm a rocket scientist, I'm very familiar with the Space Shuttle, and its retirement is a very big deal. So, why haven't I talked about it.?

There are several reasons. One is that the ending of the Shuttle, dictated back in 2004, has become confused and mired in the political infighting that's engulfed NASA. I'm not going to point fingers except to say that wrangling and fighting over a budget for something like NASA and what to do with it is a wonderful way to spend money without accomplishing anything and let irreplaceable technical minds slip away. You can't do space in half measures. But I digress, because the Shuttle's retirement isn't about that, though many people have put them together.

The Shuttle was retired because, with the second catastrophic mission in Shuttle's history (Columbia STS-107), we had to come to grips with just how dangerous it was. By design. And that's a key point. Not that it was designed with the intent of being dangerous, but because the design is inherently dangerous and there's nothing that can be done at this point to change that. It's also aging, not just in technology (computers leapt forward so far in the time it's been active, it's not even humorous), but also in the physical components that are either worn or old and/or so obsolete replacement parts are almost nonexistent. In many cases, the Shuttle program had bought out all the remaining stock in the whole world of some items because no one was going to make them any more.

I was not against the retirement and still am not for the reasons I just described. And those were the reasons the Shuttle was to be retired by 2010.

Having said that, I have to marvel at this remarkable spacecraft and remember that, for all the risks and challenges in the design, the Shuttle is unique to space and does what no one else has ever done. Ever. That is take tons and tons of people and hardware out into space - and bring them back. Despite the many aspects of reusability that were touted as fantastic that, truly, never came to fruition (like simplicity, and easy of rework for next flight and cost), this aspect is the one that makes the Shuttle stand out. And it will continue to stand out until we've found a new way to do the same thing.

Because that's the real trick, isn't it. Anyone can send hardware into space (well, not anyone, but you know what I mean). We have dozens of rocket designs that can take either heavy hardware a good ways or lighthardware out into the cosmos, lots of rockets that are built on the same principles and the same basic designs and do the same jobs. Not just "us" but the Chinese and Japanese and Europeans and, of course, the Russians, not to mention India and now Iran. Flinging it out there is not big deal, relatively speaking and, because it isn't that dangerous once it's launched, redundancy and extreme safety measures aren't required. But, see, the trick that really means something, that says you've beaten space, is bringing someone or something back. That's where the real challenge is.

The Russians and Chinese have brought people back (though not much else). The Japanese and we have brought some dust back, I think. But no one else has ever brought back much more than data on what they're doing. Not experiments or samples or what have you. Pictures and data streams, yes, but it's not the same as bringing back the real samples, testing it on the ground. It's not the same as examining the LDEF for years and studying what the surface pitting and effects really meant.

Admittedly, the Space Shuttle had limitations, most definitively that limitation of being in the low portion of low earth orbit. It was a large craft and the lack of pieces to fall off, like most expendables, meant it couldn't go so far, but the coming back part, that was a unique capability. (Russia's Buran, in theory, could have carried more than the Shuttle there and back, but since it only had one test flight and never actually did so, I'm not giving it credit).

I'm not sorry she's retired. She ran a long time. She did some incomparable stuff, things we won't be able to do again until we come up with something as fantastic as she was when she was shiny and new. The problem with a reusable, though, is those that use her get hidebound. Everything's about keeping her running because you're using the same old hardware, so improvements are few and far between or just impossible. She gets old and you get in the mindset of accepting more and more risk because fixing the problems are too hard, too costly or could turn around and cause more problems just by messing with her.

It would have been great if we had graduated from the Shuttle into a next generation Shuttle, one that could bring things back like she did but go places she couldn't, further or more capable, perhaps to a station where other spacecraft would leap from to reach out further into space. That would have been something and we could have used the lessons we learned the hard way, the things that didn't work as we planned and the amazing things that did the otherwise impossible.

But we didn't. Too often her proposed replacements were underpowered, undersized facsimiles of what we already had, rather than a next generation, despite all the inroads made in computers, software, controllability, material science, etc. We were working backwards, not forwards, and always at tremendous cost. No wonder those programs kept getting cancelled.

We can do it. The Shuttle's proof and kudos have to be provided that she flew so well so often and safely despite her many handicaps, not only to the ship herself but the phalanxes of hard-working people who made it so (many of whom are currently looking for new jobs). We can do the impossible or at least the improbable. I believe that.

I also believe, that until we do what the Shuttle did again, take up tons and bring it back, we will never really be in a position to conquer space. We'll be, at best, dabblers.

Because, in the end, people have to go, or it's just data. We have to bring soil and other samples back or we're just speculating. If we want to take advantage of the unusual aspects of space, create new materials, do meaningful biological research, we're going to have to bring our experiments and our results back down to the ground.

That's why I believe in manned spaceflight. And why I haven't given up. There is knowhow in this world and someday, someone's going to figure out to go the next step beyond the Space Shuttle.

We're just not there yet. But we could be.


  • Project Savior

    That was what I really liked about the Shuttle, that it was the only spacecraft that could bring back a meaningful amount of cargo.
    The first rule of Airlines is don't fly empty planes. No matter how much the cargo is worth one-way, that is cut in half if you return empty.
    If we can set up anything in space that needs cargo to be sent to Earth the cost of spaceflight by something like the shuttle will be automatically cut in half, as the cost will be split by both going up and going down.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Well, and that's a key point. Especially if we want to take tourists/passengers up, we're going to have to bring them back.

    You'll notice the commercial enterprises planning to do tourist stuff aren't bringing them into orbit but really just the extents of the atmosphere. We're still not going where we need to go next.

    But somebody will.

  • Jeff King

    Great post... I didn't know this.

  • Writer Lady

    Thanks. I enjoyed your insider's view. It helps to make sense of what I didn't understand. Maybe sometime soon a fresh bunch of rocket scientists will do something else extraordinary.

    Those scientists who find themselves not working on the space shuttle may find new ways to amaze us. I'm waiting for that to happen.

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