Tuesday, July 05, 2011

NASA's Final Shuttle: The End of an Error?

Xnewsman sends in this great article from time that holds an unflinching eye on the last Shuttle flight and the end to the program.

From the Time article:
  • Friday, the 135th and last shuttle mission is scheduled to be launched, ending a program in which five ships carried 777 passengers into space, traveling a collective half a billion miles
As the article points out, the shuttle program built the International Space Station, launched the Magellan, Ulysses and Galileo probes to Venus, the sun and Jupiter. Plus the truly shining accomplishment has to be placing the Hubble Space telescope in orbit and returning to service it several times.

But then there was also these.... The $500 million price tag every time one took off, the months of maintenance and prep work needed between flights, the thermal tiles the ships would shed like dry leaves and finally the loss of 14 astronauts.

The shuttle was envisioned as a way for workers in space to commute to work, it was supposed to reduce the cost of delivering material to orbit to a tenth of the cost and each shuttle was supposed to last 100 launches. The truth is it never became a commuter anything, cost over runs and delays plus losses managed to increase the cost of launching to a point that the only customers to use the shuttle was NASA and the military. Shuttles never can close to the overly optimistic 100 flights. Discovery which was the most flown managed only 38 trips in 28 years.

Any system has it good and bad traits, the venerable shuttles were no exception.

There is some wonderful history and photography in the Time article. Read more by clicking here


Homer said...

I really have mixed emotions concerning the end of the shuttle missions. As an 11 year old kid, in July 1969, sitting in front of a creaky old B&W TV watching grainy B&W images being beamed from the moon, I could only believe that it was only the beginning. I had books and models, anything you can think of, that revolved around the Saturn/Apollo spacecraft. And being enthralled by the technology presented by Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey (even though I was too young to understand the latter..hahaha) I just knew that mankind had taken its first step to manned planetary exploration.

I remember the feeling of awe that I had when Columbia lifted off in ’81. It was so different that the Saturn V launches that it reinforced my confidence that the program was still heading in the right direction. It seems like the shuttle missions lost their ‘magic’ over the next several years. It got to the point that it was like, “Ho Hum, another shuttle lifted off today….yada yada yada”. Until ’86, that is. I’ll always remember the day of the Challenger disaster. We had one TV at work. It was only designed to be hooked to one of the old school Sony U-matic VCR’s. We were all scrambling around trying to make an antenna out of coax cable, coat hangers and tin foil just to try to get a snowy image of what was going on (that’s how we rolled before the internet).

Then, after all of the finger pointing and axe dropping was over and the shuttles started flying again, complacency seemed to set in again until ’03 when Columbia was lost in re-entry. A friend of mine, in Dallas, took her young son out that day to watch the shuttle come in over Texas. As it broke up his only question was, “Mommy, is it supposed to do that?”. Needless to say, she was at a loss for words.

The only regret I have, personally, is never making it down to the Cape to witness an actual launch. There is so much that the shuttle missions have accomplished. We now have the first ‘actual’ space station (even though it’s not like the one in 2001) that was built and funded by multiple nations in what I like to think of as a ‘world project’. We have the Hubble and all of the probes initiated by shuttle missions over the years. I won’t get into the cost overruns and accusations of wasted funds and such. Or all of the nay-sayers that think the space program has always been a waste. I’ll just get on my soap box and probably piss a bunch of people off by doing it. I can only say, how much of today’s technology would exist if it were not for the space program (starting with the launch of Sputnik)? I dare say, not much. Privatization of the industry may be a good thing. At least the entrepreneurs will not be encumbered by as much BS as NASA has to catch from the government. Maybe they will accomplish what NASA was never allowed to do - IMHO.

I am disappointed that I won’t see a Mars base (or probably even a Moon base) in my lifetime. I only hope that there is a ‘Zefram Cochrane’ or two in elementary school somewhere out there that will discover the technology needed to advance the exploration of outer space. Do I think this is the end of an error? No. The end of an era? Yes.

Beam Me Up said...

Wow Homer, so elegantly put! It mirrors my experiences very closely indeed! Same regrets even! I flinched at first with the title of this article. I wondered if they were just trying to be cute or they had some very interesting points to make. Turns out, a bit of both. The final iteration of the shuttle was a major disappointment to me. I really hoped that the SSTO was a possibility. The ungainly tank and boosters, mated to one of the ugliest spacecraft I could imagine, barely able to make it to an altitude of 150 miles was a major let down since I had never quite recovered from the debacle that was skylab and using the wonderful Apollo craft to service that monstrosity?!! But that was another era... But when I saw Crippen and Young bring in Columbia, well it was a sight...

The flights did become routine in a fashion, but NASA was not going out of it's way to keep the program interesting and the media just couldn't be bothered. Now that it's at an end you start seeing where the ERROR really was. Politics from the Bush and Obama administrations have gutted the space initiative and NASA has no follow on now that Aries has all but bellied up. Plus we have yet to see the worst. Soyuz can only lift 3 people. Hence at most 2 can be NASA. That is hardly a viable crew contingent and at 500k a seat...this will get OLD really quick, plus considering NASA's support of the ISS ends 2016, the flame that is our hope to step once again on another world, won't even flicker but flash out completely.