Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Was the Space Shuttle Worth It? Of course!

As we wind down to the final Shuttle launch (of the Atlantis), and the end of history for the first ever re-usable space craft, one beholds the usual naysaying pundits second -guessing it all and questioning the program's worth. They draw attention to the $196 billion spent over some three and a half decades, and the 14 lives lost, then carp that only half the actual number of planned flights occurred...at enormous cost. But no one ever goes into the background of this.

It began with the Nixon administration, which - faced with a Vietnam War it was unable to simply pull out of - decided to cut all remaining Apollo Moon missions instead. Thus, the one time dream of a lunar colony and steppingstone to Mars was totally dashed. As a substitute, NASA offerred the Space Shuttle, designed as a ferrying craft to go back and forth with supplies to the planned Space Station. The trouble was no Space Station had yet been constructed, so the Space Shuttle ended up as a space craft with no place to go.

Worse, the designers, in order to try to avoid pre-emptive budget cuts, lowballed the overall costs of the missions and vehicles, and asserted they'd "get lower as more missions were launched". Instead the costs got higher. But the time Reagan became president, cost cuts were the only thing between keeping a Shuttle at all in any form or mothballing it. Alas, the cuts also occurred in the sphere of safety planning, and the useless "O-Rings" were a case in point. Because they'd not been designed to withstand frigid temperatures (such as before liftoff of 'Challenger' from Cape Kennedy on the morning of January 28, 1986) they lost resiliency and the 7 brave crew of that mission paid with their lives.

Oh, the blame game still persists, hell it's inevitable with flawed, egoistic humans! But physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the Challenger Disaster investigating commission, showed by a simple experiment that the O-rings were to blame. They were the immediate cause. But telling it truthfully, had it not been the O-rings some other element or device might have been the cause of another crash - and we only need look ahead to 2003 and the fate of the Columbia Shuttle which was doomed from liftoff. A piece of tile had broken off of one wing and struck the craft causing damage that would prevent a safe re-entry. The Columbia burned up somewhere over Texas with a loss of another 7 lives.

So what was the basic problem with the Shuttle program? In a brief synopsis, it was a hybrid craft that was the product of differing engineering designs, and this complexity showed up in its flaws. Moreover, with higher and more honest cost estimates, it might have been possible to design a proper shuttling space craft which also had an astronaut abort feature, so the crew could be shot off to safety in the event of any problem - much like test pilots can do with their craft.

As to whether it was worth it, I will take the Shuttle program any day and twice on Sunday, even at a cost of $196 billion and 14 lives lost, to the Vietnam War with its $269 billion cost and 58,000 lives lost - from which we gained absolutely nothing!

With the Shuttle, perhaps the ultimate contribution was the insertion of the Hubble Telescope into orbit. Hibble is the most ambitious, stupendous optical telescope ever conceived and it has paid off in spades. It has given us new clear eyes on the cosmos, with images of distant galaxies and nebulae never beheld before by human eyes - since humans were compellled to observe from beneath a murky pile of atmosphere. The data Hubble has generated has been just as profound - and much of this has been thoroughly documented in the monograph: Hubble's Science Legacy: Future Optical, Ultraviolet, Astronomy from Space.

Perhaps the most popularly known contribution of the HST has been in assisting in the discovery of hundreds of extra-solar planets: other worlds, orbiting dozens of different stars.

The Shuttle's other major contribution has been in ferrying supplies to help complete the International Space Station. (ISS). Now, with the Shuttle program mothballed, we will have to depend exclusively on Russian craft to make the regular supply runs.

The end of the Shuttle program ends a brave chapter and one which will be recalled as important in the history of astronautics. However, it will also be remembered as a sad ending for a once proud superpower that had visions of sending men to other worlds to colonize. However, the monstrous expense of being bogged down by military overstretch, eventually bled its treasure to the point of having to rely on private contractors.

What is their greatest ambition at this point? Well, not going to Mars, but rather expediting short sub-orbital jaunts to maybe 75 miles altitude for those people with enough money to afford them.

A real pity!

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