Space Shuttle: Good bye and good riddance

This 135th Shuttle mission will be last before the four surviving vehicles will be sent to museums. Two other vehicles, Challenger and Columbia weren’t so lucky, blowing up with their crews during launch or disintegrating during reentry. The shuttle program managed to kill 14 astronauts during 135 missions, odds comparable to playing Russian roulette.

It also cost about $200 billion dollars, more in inflation adjusted dollars than the moon landings and the atomic bomb during WW2 combined. All in all, it was a huge financial drain, stealing money from real science projects by NASA, most which are unmanned.

Shuttle missions ended up about 20 times more expensive that promised when it was still on the drawing board. A lot of that was for political reasons. Politicians considered it a source of pork barrel spending for their constituencies. It had to serve both civilian and military purposes to get funding, which meant the design became needlessly complex, even though some of the military requirements were never used.

Unlike the initial promise the Shuttle never was a reusable vehicle, since its bulkiest part, the main fuel tank was dropped into the ocean. Most of the takeoff thrust came from solid fuel engines that, once lit, could not be stopped again, a step back behind the technology of the Apollo project. That is why during the launch sequence the Shuttle’s weaker main engines are run up first before the more powerful solid fuel boosters are ignited. The Shuttle may have looked like a space plane, but it was really a glorified fireworks rocket.

The Shuttle’s final safety record was disgraceful, compared to the fairly solid track record of Russian launch vehicles during the same period. The Russians more or less stuck to what had worked during the 1960s.

Let’s face it, the Shuttle was never primarily about science. Whatever wasn’t for military purposes about the program was mostly entertainment. Human crews were supposed to trigger human interest. To justify billions in funding from tax payers’ money, NASA had to get people to pay attention, so they put school teachers, scientists and crew members from many other countries on flights.

Besides the Hubble space telescope the Shuttle mostly lifted bits for the International Space Station. But neither the shuttle nor the ISS ever managed to grab the public’s imagination in the same way the Apollo missions did, except when missions tragically failed.

Things were so different in the 1960s. The Apollo program was born as a prestige project during the cold war, to prove the superiority of the western system over the Soviet system after the Sputnik shock. The Russians had been first in space because their nuclear weapons were too bulky to fit onto less powerful rockets. Consequently they had to develop enormous launchers, which then gave them a head start in the space race.

After the race to the moon had been decided, “detente” arrived and with it an era of cooperation in space, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975. Perhaps the idea was that long term the only goal for manned flights bigger than the Moon could be Mars and that was too far and too costly for anyone to go it alone.

The shuttle was to be the workhorse for construction the ISS, whose main purpose was studying how people cope with long stays in space, knowledge not really very useful unless one is sending people to Mars. The problem with manned Mars missions however is that is you can send hundreds of robot missions to Mars for the cost of a single manned mission. Not only will you get a lot more results, you’ll get them decades sooner, at no risk to human crews.

There’s simply no scientific reason for human flights to Mars. We’re not likely to send any crews there during the next 50-100 years, if ever.

Besides a roughly 1 in 100 chance of getting killed on the way to the ISS or while returning from it on a shuttle flight, shuttle and ISS crews are exposed to high levels of radiation. An astronaut spending 6 months on the ISS gets about 180 mSv, about 9 times as much as the annual limit for workers in a nuclear power station. You’d have to spend a year living outdoors in Iitate village, one of the most radioactively contaminated areas near the Fukushima-I reactor in Japan, to pick up as much radiation as during 1 month on the ISS (30 mSv). The risks on a Mars mission are even worse than that because the astronauts would leave the Earth’s magnetic field and would spend not months but years on a return trip.

Like the ISS and the international fusion reactor ITER, the Shuttle was a mega project that, once set in motion, was almost impossible to stop, even if costs exploded, schedules were overrun by years and results were underwhelming.

Hopefully, even if manned spaceflight continues for the time being, some lessons will have been learnt from the mistakes of the Shuttle project.

6 thoughts on “Space Shuttle: Good bye and good riddance

  1. Totally disagree. Anytime we can put a man in space we are taking a step forward. I just wish they had continued pushing the envelope. The reason the public lost interest is the missions became too routine. Maybe they should have mixed in a few moon landings to keep the interest level high?

  2. @OTD-Colonel:

    Why should people have remained interested in Shuttle flights when there were no significant results? The only significant results, to put it harshly, were 14 dead crew members and $200 billion more in government debt.

    There are far better ways of exploring the solar system. For example, the total cost of building, launching, landing and operating two Martian rovers on the surface for the initial 90-Martian-day (sol) primary mission was US$820 million, less than the cost of one Shuttle mission. They ended up producing new data for about 6 years.

    If 30 years of Shuttle flights is the wisest use of $200,000,000,000 you can think of then I’m sorry, you’re lacking in imagination. Besides smarter ways of exploring other celestial bodies, there are numerous unsolved technical problems, such as how to provide sufficient energy for what will be a gloabl population about 10 billion people in the not too far away future. Perhaps space-based solar power is one answer that could have been researched instead of maintaining the ISS.

  3. I think when it comes to the US, complaining about money wasted while they spend trillions in the middle east is a bit of a joke. You could practically rebuild america for what they’ve wasted so far.

    You’re probably right about the shuttle missions being useless, but the money argument drags away from it imo.

  4. I guess it all depends what you think the purpose of human activity is in space. If you think its just for science, then sending probes to dangerous places for far less is a good plan, however… and this is a big however, nothing compares to men on the ground doing the science onsite with the proper tools, no time delay, the best vantage points, and their instincts to follow leads that operators back on earth would miss. Of course, you have to gear the mission for science: a flags and footprints 30 day sojourn to mars is a complete waste of time and resources and should never be undertaken. If they go it should be for a 2 year stay. The amount of science that could be done by a crew of 4-6 in that period would be immense, especially if they have rovers that can go hundreds of kilometers at a time. You’d learn more about mars in 2 days than all the probes we’ve ever sent there.

    Now if you believe that humans have no purpose in space (bases, colonies, future branches of human civilization) than all of that means nothing. But I doubt you will keep politicians interested in funding robotic missions if there is no human element involved. I think thats why most people feel inspired by seeing a martian sunset, because they live vicariously through that picture: “one day humans will see this sight with their own eyes.”

  5. Also, as an edit: I think the space shuttle was a textbook example of the sunk-cost fallacy. When it was obvious it wasnt going to achieve the goals (by the mid 70s) it was time to scrub it and move on. Hell the Saturn V system was cheaper to launch than the shuttle. If we continued to evolve something like that at the time, I doubt the ISS would ever have been built since that came from SS Freedom, a project designed to justify the existence of the space shuttle.

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