Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Space Shuttle Was No “Dud”!

For a fairly bright guy, Lawrence Krauss (Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University) can get some things mighty wrong! Among these is his take on the U.S. space program and specifically the Space Shuttle, appearing in an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (‘The Shuttle was a Dud But Space is Our Destiny’, p. A13). Krauss claims that the Shuttle was a “Failed program” and “a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy”.

He also claims:

“The Space Shuttle program failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel”

However, Krauss’ error – like so many others – is not looking at the program within the fiscal context of the time. Detached from this context, of course the Shuttle appears as a disappointment when so many expected lunar bases (the natural extrapolated outcome of the Apollo missions) by 1980. Then, we ought to have had a Mars base by 1990! But Krauss forgets or never processes a little impediment that intruded: the $269 b eventual cost of the wasteful (in both blood and treasure) Vietnam War.

Indeed, as the red ink bled, both from the war and LBJ’s “great Society” programs, it was evident by 1971 that: a) the Apollo missions would have to be truncated, and b) the manned space program – if kept – would devolve and diminish to a low Earth orbit substitute of earlier aspirations. When then President Richard Nixon (just before his Watergate crisis) confronted NASA’s administrators in 1972, they were basically informed of the writing on the wall: Either come up with a much tailored down program for manned space exploration, or have nothing at all.

Given the choice between something and nothing, NASA chose the first – which meant pursuing the less costly Space Shuttle program, already on the drawing boards. Alas, since the Shuttle was really designed for re-supply of existing space stations and none existed yet, this meant it would be constrained mainly to ‘show and tell’ events in low Earth orbit. There were no other choices, it was either this, leading on to the eventual substantive Shuttle missions 20 years later, or no manned flights.

Once Reagan assumed office in January, 1981, the constrictions on spending for space grew much more formidable, thanks to his massive tax cuts (going from a maximal marginal rate near 70% to 28%) and the $2.7 trillion defense spending spree (which combination was in fact responsible for converting us into a global debtor). Naturally, in this anemic and hostile (to space spending) fiscal environment the screws tightened even more on NASA and they were forced to lowball cost estimates and cut corners for future flights. The latter included ramping up an already overly ambitious launch schedule. If they didn’t do this, they’d be totally left out of the manned space budget. In these circumstances, the Challenger disaster must be understood and referenced- as the ultimate result of excessive cutting corners, and rushing launch schedules (the Challenger never should have been launched under those frigid conditions – and the O-ring risk had been noted by engineers at Morton Thiokol)

Krauss also lampoons the space station, which he describes as a “$100 billion boondoggle orbiting no farther from Earth than New York is from Washington”

But again, Krauss is naively measuring his standard for success against that for an ideal fiscal world, particularly one devoid of budget-busting wars! We did not have such a world, and from Reagan’s era deficits have only compounded making it clearly impossible (especially with so many occupations of choice) we ever will. You only have so much money to spend on so many different things – and the huge bank bailouts didn’t help! Krauss processes none of this background. Meanwhile, factoring in such background, I see the ISS as a stupendous feat of human engineering which will not only provide the basis to acclimatize to living and working in space, but also do experiments not possible from Earth – as well as analysis. And we have already seen manufacturing benefits from micro-gravity processes.

The space station has also afforded two former combatant nations the opportunity to cooperate in an extended space endeavor, detached from military agendas. It has thereby forged bonds, which will place us in good stead for future cooperative missions. Far from being a “boondoggle” the space station is easily the best first stepping stone on the path to Mars and more distant destinations.

While Krauss, like Steven Weinberg before him, does make the solid case that the “real science” has mainly been achieved by NASA’s robot probes, this doesn’t mean that it would have been smart to allow the manned effort to hibernate for 30 years! Sure, we may have had more probes to the outer planets, even to Mars or the asteroids, but with the manned space effort we now have a leg up on mastering the ability to LIVE and WORK in space over extended times, certain prerequisites for being able to survive 8-10 month journeys to Mars! Thus, the ISS and Shuttle have certainly not been for naught.

I do agree that in spending hundreds of billions one needs a rational plan “that can excite the imagination of the next generation”, as Krauss maintains. But let us agree that such a rational plan can only emerge in a fiscal environment which nurtures such expectations. Most of the cost overruns of the shuttle, meanwhile, were due to crimping its budget from the outset forcing NASA to lowball estimates to unrealistic levels.

Krauss ends by citing Richard Feynman’s famous quotation following the Challenger investigation:

“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”

To which I would only add:

“And sufficient money must be in place before reality can be manifested from dreams or imagination!”

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