The space shuttle Atlantis has landed, ending more than 30 years of the shuttle program. A lot of brave astronauts, and many more talented engineers were involved, and they should be proud of their hard work and sacrifice. That said, I doubt if I’m the only person breathing a sigh of relief. Even though it was constantly upgraded and refurbished, the shuttle was still a forty year-old design hobbled by budget-driven compromise. After Columbia, any interest I had in its mission was overridden by concern over the safety of the astronauts.
There’s a lot of mourning and chest beating about how the greatest country in the world will have to use a Russian rocket to reach the International Space Station. The simple solution to that problem is to deorbit the damn thing. The James Webb space telescope is a hell of a lot more interesting and will yield more useful science than a man can circling the globe for a few more years, yet the JWST is probably going to be cut out of the NASA budget.
Houston’s days are over — the next few years of interesting and exciting space exploration is going to be driven by JPL and Goddard. If you can’t get excited about robots orbiting asteroids or a telescope that can see 100x farther than Hubble, then there’s no excitement for you in the space program. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still the world leaders in space exploration — we’re just not doing it the way that comic books say we should.
I’m plenty excited about asteroid exploration via robots, and about awesome telescopes. That still leaves me room to be disappointed that we don’t have independent launch capability, and aren’t pursuing manned missions with a specific, long-term goal that includes a large-scale permanent presence off Earth.
Jordin Kare still speaks for me, regarding the Shuttle.
I’ve been reading Packing for Mars (recommended, by the way, if only for the history of early manned flight both from the American and the Russian povs), and there’s a comment by a scientist that resonated with me. I can’t remember the exact quote but the gist is that working with remote control is all well and good, but that sometimes the tool needed is the one between someone’s ears, and that a pair of eyes and a brain can make deductions immediately and grab the bigger picture.
I heard the double booms around 5:30 or so, sad that that will be the last time I hear them.
The manned space program was doomed the minute astronauts (or is that astro-nuts?) with their fighter jock mentality in NASA forced the shuttle design as their new toy – at seven million dollars per mission cost proposed the damn thing turned out to cost at least 1.7 billion dollar per mission and no, design errors were not the real issue; the whole concept was wrong. One-use throwaway rockets that are NOT manned qualified are orders of magnitude cheaper and still too damn expensive. Gravity wells are a bitch. There are ways to bring manned rocket costs down but why? Non-manned qualified throwaway rockets will always be cheaper. Thank god the damn thing has been put onto the trash heap where it belongs – should have been scraped decades ago.
Yes EMMA, I can think of a few reasons a manned Mars mission looking for life would make more sense than robots but the cost is still in the many tens of billions of dollars – we are reaching (at?) peak oil and that is an issue we need to address first.
The US has massive launch capability, just not for meatbags.
Pity they had to use the shuttle for launching satellites. It could have been much smaller, much cheaper per launch had they skipped that nonsense. Just no funding to do it the sane way.
@DBrown: It wasn’t the astronauts, it was congress via the DOD. NASA couldn’t get funding without using DOD money, DOD insisted on fucking it up. I don’t know that NASA astronauts had input on the stupid polar orbit requirement (that was never actually used, but made them triple the size of the shuttle.)
JPL, Goddard and Beijing.
I worked a KSC for a number of years in the ’90’s. While I was never a fan of the shuttle I was a huge believer in manned space flight and kept hoping smarter people would eventually drag NASA out of the past and toward a real future. But that isn’t happening. Maybe when the Chinese open a base on the moon the morans will be shocked out of their stupor and demand better – its how we got a space program in the first place. The US ended up with the top rocket guys from Germany after the war yet it wasn’t until Sputnik that we cared to do anything useful with them.
We spent more to air condition army tents in Iraq and Afghanistan last year than the entire NASA budget – what a waste.
Am I the only one creeped out about the privatization of space flight? NASA has had its problems, but I would still rather have my safety left up to them then to middle managers of a for-profit corporation. This will not turn out as well as many think.
@6 Mike – YES! Congress turned NASA into a giant jobs program for their districts. Why are there 47 NASA facilitates spread across the nation? Not because the agency or the science demands it. They are there because powerful Congressmen wanted that sweet, sweet, pork feeding the folks back home.
Without the Shuttle or something that would look very much like it, Hubble would never have worked properly and it would have died after a few years in orbit from lack of maintenance missions to replace parts like the positioning gyros. Ditto for the ISS; some sections of it were lofted by Russian boosters but most of the work was done using the Shuttle’s external arm and payload bay, supplemented by spacewalks through the airlock. The new spam-in-a-can shoeboxes being proposed for future manned space missions (SpaceX’s Dragon, for example) don’t have payload bays or airlocks and can’t support spacewalk operations. The replacements also lack serious OMS downrange manoeuverability and they certainly don’t have the living and working space the Shuttle carried to orbit every time it flew.
The Shuttle wasn’t the best design but it was good enough to do the job, and for that I give its engineers and designers a lot more credit than the Monday-morning quarterbacks kicking holes in it.
I called my dad yesterday to wish him a happy birthday, and that was the first time ever that I realized that the Apollo 11 moon landing was the same day. And I’m 50.
Apropos of nothing.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still the world leaders in space exploration—we’re just not doing it the way that
comic booksfive hundred years of European colonization says we should.
Disappointment over the lack of manned exploration is due more to the myth of Columbus than the myth of Buck Rogers.
MikeJ: Generally speaking, yes, satellites should be (and should have been) launched independently, leaving more room on the Shuttle for experiments that needed human involvement for whatever reason. And I stand corrected: “independent human-payload launch capability.”
42 years ago yesterday I was on R&R in Sydney for the moon landing. They had a tracking station there and the Aussie’s were really into it.
@alwhite: That was an issue too, but not the biggest one.
DOD wanted to launch spy sats. Those go in polar orbits. Manned flights typically launch west to east, getting a boost from rotation of the earth. If you launch north, you need more thrust. Bigger engines weigh more, so you need more fuel. More fuel weighs more so you need bigger engines and more fuel. Etc. Millions of dollars per launch went to billions per launch, and the plan of 100 launches a year was dead.
In the end they never launched direct to polar orbit (there was one scheduled for a few months after Challenger that got scrubbed in the aftermath) but it completely shaped the shuttle project, and really killed the original good idea.
So you are saying that astronauts designed, or had veto power over, the space shuttle? Really? I missed that nugget as I followed the development of the program. Do you have a source for that statement?
mike in dc
We probably need a breakthrough in propulsion tech(i.e., being able to get places significantly faster) or possibly some “smoking gun for life” exoplanet detections before there’s the kind of serious investment necessary to make a manned program both viable and meaningful(goalwise, that is). A permanent habitat at a Lagrange point would be a serious engineering challenge, and would test our ability to “colonize” space.
Apropos to me! My recollection of that day also involves my dad. I called home from Australia. . . collect, my frugal old man never failed to bring that up at family gatherings!
Starting in the 80’s the shuttle program sucked all the air and energy out of the space program. We’d be mining asteroids and maintaining a forward spaceport on Mars by now otherwise.
The new approach is going to create a global space industry, opening up societal and economic change. NASA can go back to being pure exploration/research, the role it should have played all along.
My initial excitement about the shuttle was characterized by Arthur C. Clarke’s observation along the lines of “who could afford to fly if you had to throw the aircraft away after one use?” The shuttle was supposed to radically reduce the cost of getting into orbit. It didn’t. I’m not much of a student of the political influences others have mentioned, but two big issues seemed to be 1) putting the payload alongside the launch vehicle where crap can fall onto it and 2) the rigors of launch to Earth orbit may be such that it’s cheaper to use disposable vehicles despite Clarke’s observation.
Belafon (formerly anonevent)
I’ll let xkcd speak for me on this one:
“The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”
@9 Keith G
It never does. Early, sailing ship, steam ship, train, and air travel all had their problems.
It doesn’t creep me out. It simply makes me want to regulate space travel like we do nuclear plants, for much the same reason.
I’m reassured to know most of the private innovation will be done overseas of the US by governments that still see value in protecting their citizens.
The Shuttle was originally intended to have a manned, reusable first stage, too. Why drag those huge, heavy main engines all the way to orbit when you don’t need them there?
People who are interested in the history of the shuttle program should read chapter 1 of the Columbia Accident Investigation Report. The pdf is here:
Belafon (formerly anonevent):
Hear Hear! How many would like to go to a funeral and hear long lectures about how prudent and dull the dearly departed were.
I disagree with you mistermix, there is more to living then eating, shitting and sex.
Have to agree with the scav and Belafon, not everything should be judged by it economic worth alone. Isn’t this the same MBA mentality which we abhor?
@11 Robert Sneddon. You are right, without shuttle no Hubble repair. But without shuttle, how many Hubble-like satellites could have been financed, and launched? The ISS never had any scientific use whatsoever. Robots are far more useful and far cheaper.
Manned exploration OS done until physics comes up with a lift method that allows adequate mass for the hauling of shielding material and significant machinery for decent centrifugal spin.
Dammit, mistermix, I was going to write a post just like this one today. Now it will look like I’m plagiarizing.
Write it better.
probably less. i’d be surprised if NASA still existed in any meaningful way if we didn’t have the shuttle. all of nasa’s research piggy backs on the manned space flight money.
now if funding was rational, then yeah maybe there would be more money for unmanned probes and satellites and telescopes. but how likely that is in our world i don’t know.
Sorry but all of you do not understand cost dynamics of rockets. The DoD is not responsible for the shuttle being so costly. Any rocket costs more the bigger it gets but the cost per pound of payload is the issue and that drops for any vehicle as it gets bigger (within reason). Not in the same fashion and that is an issue with any shuttle design but the basic point is that even if the shuttle was made larger to reach polar orbits, that did not take a vehicle that was supposed to put payloads into orbit for a few hundred dollars per pound to well over $50,0000/lbs! The innate design of a return vehicle is the problem (all that wasted weight put into orbit that has to return and be maintained – maintenance costs are one of the biggest cost factors of any rocket, by the way) and you are missing that critical point. The fact that it is manned adds to the problem. My point was any throwaway, unmanned rocket is the closest we can get to low cost space. No shuttle design can compete but the space shuttle was stupid and wasteful before it was ever even designed – we should have stayed with the Saturn and de-rated it to unmanned launch only – then payload costs would have been in the few hundreds of dollars per pound range. Something no shuttle design could ever achieve.
By the way, the Hubble argument is wrong – a Saturn class lift rocket could put ten Hubbles (or one unit far bigger and far better) up for a few hundred million dollars. The repair cost of the existing Hubble cost almost as much as a new Hubble would! Launching repair missions using the shuttles was far too costly. Throwaway rockets would have saved money in the long run.
I was at JSC, Mission Operations Directorate 1986-1996. I babysat the O2/H2 slush tanks, fuel cells and electrical buses onboard. Did a few other things. Good times, and then I followed the siren song of the Intertubes, ultimately to a foreign-speaking land.
The problem with throwaway rockets is they can’t be throwaway while people are riding them. They have to be as safe as human art and engineering can make them. Which is why Apollo cost about a billion a pop and was unsustainable even if the public hadn’t gotten bored.
The Space Shuttle was developed during the subsequent decade of crappy economic times, which included two oil shocks (1973 & 1979), stagflation (1974-75) and Draconian tightening of the money supply (1980). Money was tight. Economy was a big design consideration and, as someone said above, NASA had to take the General’s shilling. Hence the sprinkling of classified Shuttle missions up to 1988(ish). No polar orbits, but definitely a few doublings of KSC’s orbital inclination, from 28 degrees to over 50, for lofting spy satellites and random Star Wars crap. I think the brass and the spooks decided a human-rated rocket would also be less likely to drop expensive spy satellites in the drink or where curious hostiles could find them. For this and a lot of reasons, the Shuttle evolved into a floor wax, a dessert topping and a Swiss Army knife besides.
Re Mistermix’s sigh of relief. Every launch, I held my from T+73 seconds to two minutes in, when those Solid Rocket Boosters (glorified bottle rockets) finally fell away. I still remember the clear blue sky over Houston when the Challenger blew up (I had *finally* gotten a job interview at NASA that morning; I started work 4 weeks later.) If not Challenger, it might have been the mission to launch Galileo. The original plan called for a Centaur liquid booster to be deployed with Galileo from a Shuttle. The crew didn’t fancy their chances if they had to abort before deployment, with the real possibility of a catastrophic failure while emptying the Centaur’s tanks to safe it for return. Galileo itself had RTGs (atomic batteries) that could survive a drop in the drink (see Apollo 13) but maybe not after being blown up. (This was the basis for Jello Biafra’s spoken word bit “Why I’m glad the Space Shuttle blew up.” It offended the hell out of me at the time, but I understood it later.)
What NASA’s been good at is doing the heavy lifting on space research and handing it off to the private sector. It’s too bad only now has anyone stepped up, mostly would-be James Bond villains. By the way, Space Command have a mini-Shuttle they use from time to time. It’s a follow-on to the Shuttle (X-31 or something), closer to the original idea, but more up to date.
(wipes away a tear of nostalgia)
Um, the Shuttle’s rocket motors were reusable. The Industry name for the two large white rockets on the side of the shuttle are called Reusable Solid Rocket Motors (RSRM), they’d fall into the ocean, get dragged back to shore, cleaned, refurbished, and re-launched.
Man rating a rocket is where the largest cost comes from, as many of these private companies will soon learn.
@33 DBrown wrote,
I know but a tiny fraction about this subject compared to you, but I wondered about that a while back myself.
SweetNostrils, fka Scuffletuffle
Did anyone else hear “Michael Gass” talking this morning on NPR about his private company in the running for taking up future manned space travel? I couldn’t help wondering if the helicopters would be laughing by then.
@22 Belafon wrote,
Except for the logical possibility that we’re simply not ready to move into space right now, given the economics of lifting out of the gravity well, as @29 Yevgraf points out.
“Not ready right now” does not mean “should never ever go.”
My guess is we’d have usable AI long before we have any realistic capability to go interstellar. And AI (which, unlike humans, can be turned off for long voyages, doesn’t need cumbersome spinning-section gravity, and is relatively less vulnerable to radiation and large temperature deltas) makes much more sense as a way of doing deep space exploration.
Earth civilization may eventually go to the stars, but not with human beings.
I work (partially) for the Webb project. It is extremely cool. You can find out a lot about it here: http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope/
Shit, most of what is fun, and interesting, and useful in this world was once the stuff of comic books. Including this debate on computers via the Internets.
I loves me some JPL, but I also want to see astronauts making the stars their destination.
more useful science than a man can circling the globe
The “canned man” part of the space program has been both a draw and drain. The shuttle was also an R&D vehicle that got prematurely put into operational mode to justify its cost when expendable launch boosters might have been a more affordable and dependable way to go.
That being said, I hope NASA can continue to inspire us and future generations, and give people a better comprehension of what it means to live on this pale blue dot.
Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. ~ Carl Sagan
Earth civilization may eventually go to the stars, but not with human beings.
What would “earth civilization” look like at that point in the game?
You know, I’d like to back you on this since I think unmanned missions are tremendously undervalued, but you’re so snidely dismissive of anyone who disagrees with you on the future of space travel that I question whether you’ve engaged with the debate at all. Among other things, you seem to have unrealistic expectations of future U.S. spending on the programs you support, even as you note the likely cuts to James Webb.
Among other problems that have already been pointed out with your post is that if you dismiss ambitious projects as the stuff of science fiction, you miss how striving to achieve the stuff of science fiction helped get us to where we are now in this and other fields.
Near as I can figure, human beings have always gone to see what was over the horizon, by foot, by boat, by plane, by space ship. It’s part of what we do. It’s part of who we are. Otherwise we would all still be huddling together in some cave in Africa.
I am in awe of what the people of NASA are capable of creating.
Strange thing, when I was younger, I really wasn’t. I was 6 or 7 when we began sending astronauts into space, and childishly took it for granted. I was at a Giants game when we landed on the moon. The PA broke in to announce the news, we all cheered, and then it was play ball. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it was Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that snapped me out of my complacent ignorance, and instilled in me the aforementioned sense of awe. If it were my call, I’d immediately redirect (at least) 10% of the defense budget into NASA, and leave it the decision of how best to spend it with the scientists. They are truly amazing people.
No idea, other than “not like what we have now.” But that’s true of just about any sufficiently distant future.
I think most people have no idea just how distant “the stars” actually are.
The fastest probe ever created by humanity is Voyager 1, which is moving about 17 km/sec. At its current speed it will cross a space equal to the distance to our nearest neighboring star in about 76,000 years.
I’ve had this argument before with other space-science junkies. If you kill the manned space program, you kill the unmanned program. It doesn’t matter that robots are cheaper. It doesn’t matter that you could fund a fleet of robot vehicles for the price of the space shuttle.
The money from the manned program doesn’t just get shifted over into the unmanned side. It disappears. And then the money for the unmanned programs starts disappearing along with it.
Issues with the Shuttle — some that could have been avoided, some that were inevietable, and some that we learned on the way.
1) First and foremost — there is no reason to man-rate cargo. Man-rating is expensive. Docking in space is frankly trivial these days. Insurance is far cheaper with heavy cargo than manrating the dang things. Man-rate people pods, not 120 tons of gear.
Lesson learned: Seperate manned and heavy lift.
2) The Shuttle was, in some ways, too ambitious. Materials technology, for instance — they go with those cludgy, fragile, ridiculously expensive tiles for a reason. There aren’t any better alternatives. I don’t think there are better alternatives today. Extremes of heat, cold, shock and vibration, and vacuum and atmosphere exposure AND having to put up with flight stresses? I think we’re going to have to get a lot better at nanoscale carbon manufacturing before we have something workable there.
Lesson Learned: Ablative shields may be crude, but they’re cheap, safe, and have very few failure modes.
3) When rocket goes up, stuff falls down.
Lesson learned: Put the important stuff on top, where it can’t get beaned by ice. Which deeply constrains design.
“The Dish” is a charming Australian film about just that.
I scrolled by this post really quickly and for a second I read “Finally” as “Firefly”. Oof.
This thread’s probably dead, but it’s worth remembering that the US had no capability for getting people into space between 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and the first flight of the Space Shuttle. Skylab (1973-74) wasn’t meant to support too many missions, but as the Seventies wore on with no other options, converting Skylab into something resembling a space station (the Soviets managed it with Salyut) started to look like a good idea. The Space Shuttle, then in development, could have docked with Skylab and boosted it out of its decaying orbit. But funding cuts delayed Shuttle development, while high solar activity in the late 1970s thickened Earth’s atmosphere and caused Skylab’s orbit to decay faster.
Like a lot of people, I watched the little dot of Skylab making its final pass over Texas.
Long story short: There’s a six year gap in the history of US manned spaceflight. The clock is ticking.