Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

Summary:Many will lament the end of the Space Shuttle program. But I can't wait until the last orbiter gets sent to the boneyard.

Many will lament the end of the Space Shuttle program. But I can't wait until the last orbiter gets sent to the boneyard.

My ZDNet friends and colleagues have gone all sentimental about the Space Shuttle.

David Gewirtz wrote a very touching, conflicted and very personal piece noting that the Space Coast of Florida, Brevard County, is likely to get utterly whacked from job losses related to a slowdown in manned spaceflight projects.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols who worked in IT at NASA during the 1980s recalls the Challenger mission and the space program's decline.

Finally, ZDNet and SmartPlanet Editor-In-Chief Larry Dignan brings up the harsh reality that the future of manned spaceflight may lie with private industry and not NASA.

My personal view of the Shuttle program is that while it may have advanced spaceflight technology and space science to a certain degree, overall the "Space Transportation System" was too expensive, too complex and too dangerous a venture.

Ultimately, the Shuttle was the wrong path for American space flight, and as far as I am concerned, the program should have ended after the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Also Read: NASA Admits Shuttle, ISS Were Mistakes

While NASA underwent a number of organizational changes and the safety of the program was improved when the program returned to operation in 1988 after over a two and a half year hiatus, it was still a much more difficult program to maintain compared to "Big Dumb Boosters".

The Soviets and later on the Russian Federation time and time again proved these disposable rockets to be much more reliable and less expensive to launch with their Soyuz and their commercial Zenit system.

Indeed, the US once had a perfectly good "Big Dumb Booster" program with Apollo and the Saturns for manned spaceflight. But instead, the decision was made during the Nixon administration to ditch perfectly good, reliable disposable launch system technology for the sex appeal of re-usable space vehicles.

This was the wrong thing for us to do.

Also Read: To The Moon, How We Built The Technologies

Gallery: Kennedy Space Center

I don't want to diminish the contributions of companies like Boeing and Rocketdyne that did some amazing and important work on the Shuttle, specifically the design of the SSME, which helped to evolve re-useable Hydrogen/LOX rocket engines and turbopump technology.

Without these advanced higher specific impulse engines, it would not have made the Space Shuttle program possible. That much is an absolute given.

However, the SSMEs are much more complicated and a great deal more expensive than the single-use engines that Rocketdyne uses to power the Delta IV heavy-lift rocket, the RS-68, or even the J-2X, which is an evolved and higher-performance version of the engine used on the upper stages of the Saturn V during the Apollo program.

I also don't want to go into the mess that is the Morton Thiokol/ATK re-useable Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) that turned the Shuttle program into a complete cluster-you-know-what.

So you have Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne design these beautiful re-usable main engines for the orbiter, but it can't get into the air without poorly-designed SRBs that blow apart when the O-rings deteriorate and turn into peanut brittle after a night of freezing cold weather?

To quote the Blue Collar Comedy troupe, "Well there's your problem right there ma'am".

What the hell? What did we need those stupid things for? Okay, they eventually solved most of the problems, but what was the point in keeping them around? With the SRBs, the shuttle was a half-baked system that wasn't particularly good at doing anything well compared to its Big Dumb Cousins, except for perhaps being able to have a larger crew compliment.

If we wanted to get bigger payloads into space to build the ISS, we could have done it faster and more efficiently with Big Dumb Boosters instead, with Smaller Dumb Boosters and Apollo/Soyuz-style disposable spacecraft to send our astronauts up in tandem with, like the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) that is currently on the drawing boards.

But even as the Shuttle fades off into the sunset (and hopefully ends up in a museum or turned into a cool-looking snack bar someplace at a theme park in Dubai or a casino in Las Vegas) its legacy of overly-complicated and expensive to maintain crap is being dragged along with us.

It seems that the new launch system on the books, the SLS, or Space Launch System, is trying to salvage Shuttle technology, namely the SSMEs and the god-awful ATK SRBs.

So now they want a re-useable Big Dumb Booster? How stupid is that? What, are they afraid that the American public is going to be pissed off if we scrapped the whole program and all of the Shuttle's farkakt technology in favor of the reliable, thoroughly tested stuff the US Military and commercial launch systems have been using for decades?

If NASA and the US Government had any stones -- which it doesn't, then it should go back to truely disposable launch systems as the basis for future manned spaceflight. Bring back the J-2X and the RS-68, and base the launch vehicles on the Atlas and/or Delta technology.

And forget the stupid 5-segment SRBs, which are a recipe for disaster for manned spaceflight.

You wanna risk a billion-dollar satellite with them? Fine. Don't put human beings on top of them. You can't put a value on human life.

We don't need no stinking re-useable components. Give us safe, simple systems that work, so we can get our people up there safely and more often, instead of the ridiculous turnaround time that it takes to refurbish and recycle launch systems.

Because if NASA can't do it, then we should enable private industry so that it can.

Unlike many Americans, when the Space Shuttle program is put to bed, I'll be happy when the remaining orbiters get sent to the boneyard. Now let's move on to bigger, better, more efficient and less expensive ways to get our people into space.

Are you glad the Space Shuttle program is over? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Nasa / Space

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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