Thursday, July 21, 2011
A Sad Ending ...and No Amount of Spin will Assuage It!
As I watched the final Space Shuttle mission end this morning, with the landing of the Atlantis after 12 days (mostly docked to the International Space Station) a wave of bittersweet memories erupted. They included the awful images of the Challenger disaster in January of 1986, as well as Columbia's utterly preventable demise in 2003. Apart from those events, the Shuttle program has been an enormous success, and without it we'd never have the Space Station, or the Hubble Telescope. Of course, the latter has opened our eyes to a whole new cosmos not evident before. (See, e.g. the image of the Vulpecula Nebula taken from the Hubble.)
This final Shuttle mission (before all are now mothballed in museums) marks the 135th mission for the Space Shuttle fleet. Altogether, they flew 542 million miles and circled Earth more than 21,150 times over the past three decades. The five shuttles carried 355 people from 16 countries and, altogether, spent 1,333 days in space - almost four years. The Atlantis' primary mission was to re-fortify the ISS. A full year's worth of food and other supplies were dropped off at the space station, and it is expected the other international partners: Russia, Europe, Japan, will carry the load in the meantime.
The spin put out by NASA's head is that this isn't the end but merely a transition to a new beginning. Evidently, he and the other NASA honchos now are convinced that private, commercial craft will fill the vacuum. The first commercial supply run is expected late this year, with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launching its own rocket and spacecraft from Cape Canaveral.
But don't anyone hold your breath here! Let's get serious! We are comparing the limited private efforts of disconnected, competing companies with a total capitalization and resource allocation of barely 1/1000 of what NASA had, to the vast monetary resources commanded by a federal agency featuring specialized talent levels hundreds of time greater- in quality and quantity. Anyone who seriously believes any of these private operators (or even acting in concert) will match Shuttle achievements is either drunk, comatose or suffering from early onset Alzhemiers. It just isn't going to happen in this version of the multi-verse!
We are also comparing a few companies -with a few hundred jobs- against a mass, federally-funded effort that saw cooperative jobs in 32 states - with detailed construction of every single Shuttle piece to specifications, from its heat-resistant tiles, to the internal gyroscopes, to the solid rocket boosters, and the Rafaelo cargo bay (designed to accommodate tons of cargo to the Space station).
By comparison, none of the planned private spacecraft will have the hauling capability of NASA's Shuttles whose (e.g. Rafaelo)payload bay stretches 60 feet long and 15 feet across. Bays this size hoisted megaton observatories like Hubble. Much of the nearly 1 million pounds of space station was carried to orbit by Space Shuttles. The private companies biggest models, by contrast, will be lucky to lift one one-hundredth the cargo by volume and one five-hundredth by mass, which means many more trips and much more costly fuel expenditures.
Worse, if human assistance is required, or re-staffing the ISS, we'll no longer be able to send seven astronauts up at once - but only two. Because that's the maximum that can be accommodated in the Russian Soyuz craft! As I wrote in an earlier blog, JFK - who envisioned not only beating the Russians to the Moon but dominating them in space - would be appalled at the spectacle of American astronauts now having to play the role of hitch hikers on Russian craft. (Well, not exactly! According to the WSJ, NASA has "booked 46 seats" over the next 4 years on the Soyuz craft at a cost of $63 MILLION per seat! That's nearly $3 billion of U.S. taxpayer money given away to the Russians!) The truth is the Shuttle could easily continue its role of servicing re-supplies to the ISS, as well as further repairs to the Hubble, IF the political will was there!
In the meantime, SpaceX claims it can get people to the space station within three years of getting the all-clear from NASA. Station managers expect it to be more like five years. Some skeptics say it could be 10 years before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil. I say it's more like 15, especially if we continue our wasteful squandering of money in places like Afghanistan (which news stories today report has diverted BILLIONS of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Afghan warlords and the Taliban owing to corrupt banking practices. And idiots want to say "NASA space cadets" are the source of wasting taxpayer money! Hell's Bells! The ongoing Afghanistan farce wastes more money in two months than NASA's WHOLE budget uses for one year! And NASA isn't allowing its funds to be siphoned to warlords to use for opium, or for drones to kill innocent wedding parties and school kids!)
Of course, know-nothings insist the problem is money. However, that's a dodge. The REAL problem is the will to continue manned space exploration and make that a national priority as opposed to squandering American blood and treasure in useless occupations that continue to consume precious domestic resources to pour into an ungrateful pair of failed states. Meanwhile, draining our own resources to the point we'll soon become a failed state (or at least a third world one!)
As I said, the entire yearly budget of NASA ($20b) is consumed every two months in the failed state of Afghanistan, and worse, a sizeable chunk of that money is being diverted to the Taliban and assorted warlords to use for their own purposes. In a similar way, the Apollo series of missions was abruptly cut short after nearly $269 b was wasted in Vietnam. When will we ever learn?
According to the further PR-spin from NASA's program manager, NASA is sacrificing the Shuttles, so it can get out of low-Earth orbit and get to points beyond. The first stop under Obama's plan is an asteroid by 2025; next comes Mars in the mid-2030s.
But this is hogwash. The fact is it's much more likely any further manned space ambitions can be accomplished WITH the Shuttles than without. For example, a manned craft expedition to an Apollo asteroid could be much more easily mounted from the ISS after suitable cargo -loading by Shuttles, than waiting for any commercial craft to do it. To even remotely attain the cargo weight-payload capability of Atlantis will require rocket booster power simply unavaible to commercial craft.
As for Mars, that would have required a rocket like the Ares and the Orion crew module vehicle, e.g.
Yet the Ares project was cut, even after $9 billion was plowed into it. This displays a short-sightedness and limited vision that would have JFK turning over in his grave.
Fortunately, I've made tapes, dvds of dozens of hours of the Atlantis' launch, maneuvers, etc. and will have them to watch ...while waiting for the American manned space pogram to be resuscitated, if ever.