Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

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.

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TOPICS: Nasa / Space
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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.

Topic: Nasa / Space

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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143 comments
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  • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

    <em>Because if NASA can?t do it, then we should enable private industry so that it can.</em>

    I think that is the bottom line. The glory days of NASA appear to be behind it. Time to get out of the way. Unfortunate, but the past 30 years have been wasted.
    -bob
    -bob-
    • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

      @bob@... Private industry in the US is nonfunctional. What you are really saying is let the Chinese do it. No matter how bad the Shuttle is/was it kept the US in the game. Now we are on the sidelines like we are in so many technology efforts.
      Henryjos
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        +1.
        Ram U
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        +1
        sspenning1
      • You obviously haven't been reading the news.

        @Henryjos

        SpaceX, an American company, has successfully launched its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, and puts its Dragon capsule into orbit and returned it safely to Earth.

        Falcon 9/Dragon will be the platform of choice for US resupply missions to the ISS by next year. The Falcon Heavy heavy-payload rocket will be launched next year. Plans are in the works to use Dragon first as a crew lifeboat in case of emergency at the ISS, then as a crew launch vehicle to the ISS so the US no longer has to rely on the Russians.

        All this, at a price per pound that nobody, including the Chinese, can come anywhere close to matching.
        RationalGuy
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos Not True - see www.spacex.com
        andyb3
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        +1
        dksmidtx
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        +1
        nssdiver
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos No. We are NOT on the sidelines. We are poised start moving in the direction we SHOULD have been moving in 30 years ago -- getting PRIVATE Industry and Capitalism to take us into space. NASA (and even the shuttle) has accomplished some great things (as noted by many below) but also as noted by many below, the shuttle program has held us back in MANY ways (political issues, sucking up all the funds, catastrophic failures, but mostly by not allowing for any competition.) <em>Competition</em> got us to the Moon the first time and competition will get us back. The bureaucracy of government, NASA, political districts, etc. will only do everything they can to hold us back. We MUST LET GO - your government will NOT get YOU to the Moon. SpaceX or Virgin Galactic or PanAm (well, maybe Delta) WILL.
        -bob
        -bob-
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        Chinese? I'm pretty sure its mostly Russia doing it.
        kroguej
      • RationalGuy has some good points ...

        @Henryjos ... but these are currently unmanned vehicles. It is not the same when handling human cargo, and the associated life support. What makes human presence in space difficult is the need for redundancy in case of hardware failure.

        The first time a private firm has a fatality (let alone multiple fatalities), the public scrtuiny will be incredible.

        In the1990's Al Gore praised the "faster, cheaper, better" approach to space exploration - until the USA lost two unmanned Mars probes in a row. Suddenly, the attidudes about faster, cheaper, better changed. Don't think for a minute that human safety won't overshadow future private missions as well.
        M Wagner
      • Why SpaceX is brilliant re:manned flight ...

        @mwagner@<br><br>The biggest hurdle to overcome with getting rated for manned flight is not life support. It's proving the functionality of the launch abort escape system. So, if the rocket has a failure on the way up, systems have to be in place to allow the astronauts to escape.<br><br>Here's why SpaceX is awesome. You don't need that rating to land astronauts from space. So, first SpaceX will only be sending empty capsules to the ISS and returning astronauts (who were brought there by Soyuz) to Earth. While SpaceX are acting as the ferry home for our ISS crew members, they will also be working with NASA to get their capsule rated for launch.<br><br>It's brilliant because they will get experience with safely shuttling people from ISS before they ever have to launch anyone into space (which is much more dangerous than coming back down).
        RationalGuy
        • Not brilliant yet

          Still SpaceX must rely on the Soyuz to take astronauts up to the Space Station. What is the point on that? Might as well let Soyuz bring them back. Take a group up and bring the ones that are already up there back home.

          What many people are missing the point including Jason is the Space Shuttle brought and tested new technology. Will SpaceX or any other do that on their own. The answer is NO! Most of our technology was funded, created, tested by our military thru DARPA and NASA. Once the technology had mature it tickle down to our private business. Think about it. The Shuttle has being doing his job for 30 years and now these companies are starting to use this technology and still they don't have it pad down.
          jazzy2945
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        -1
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos <br><br>The shuttle kept the US in the game? I'm very sory, but not at all!<br><br>In fact, it pulled the US so far behind in the game that it's almost the same as been out of it <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/sad.gif" alt="sad"><br><br>The problem was wanting to make it the Swiss army knife of space. Now, it's like a bus mixed with a cargo ship, mixed with a reshearch platform, mixed with a space tug...<br><br>It would have been much beter to have a relatively small and light crew launcher, maybe reusable, capable of carying up to 10 peoples. A kind of space taxi.<br><br>Then, some cheap, disposable, medium and big launchers to put the heavy stuff up there.<br>After that, you design some space tugs to haul things around in space.<br>Using some 2nd stages from a Saturn V, a few versatil couplers and some rigging would have made the making of the ISS much cheaper, MUCH larger and roomier, not to mention faster. It could have been placed on a higher orbit, meaning a longer live expectation.<br><br>The shuttle as we know it was indeed a VERY bad idea that almost put the US out of space for good. And, if the US is now on the sidelines, it's the shuttle that did put you there.
        Kualinar
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos +1
        goombawa
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @bob@... <br>nobody in his right mind will pour billions of dollar creating a technology that at best will be productive in twenty years time. all the tech wonders that we are enjoying now are the result of government spending tens of billions of dollars of people's money funding basic research and building infrastructures that later on are utilised by the private sector. your private financed xprojects will amount to america building balsa wood canoe to chinese building the titanic. the chinese will have more deep pockets than your privateers....
        kc63092
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos
        + 1...
        SpaceX is basically where the Mercury program was decades ago. They have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, technology will make it easier to come up to speed, but they are still very far behind where NASA is now. Plus, private US industry answers to stockholders first and has a LONG history of cutting corners and putting workers at risk to make a few extra bucks. Just look at OSHA records if you doubt this. I'm unconvinced that SpaceX will be able to _safely_ take up the slack that the ongoing NASA budget cuts have created.

        Even the Russians are using stagnant (ancient) technologies for their current missions. The only space programs which are actually improving their technology and moving forward are the Japanese, European, and Chinese. Eventually, I see the US becoming completely dependent on these agencies for all space-related ventures.
        BillDem
      • SpaceX vs. Mercury

        @BillDem

        <i>SpaceX is basically where the Mercury program was decades ago.</i>

        The Falcon 9 rocket can carry a payload more than 7 times the size of Mercury's Atlas D rockets and can do it for less than $60 million per launch as opposed to $265 million (in today's dollars) per Mercury launch.

        You just have no idea what you're talking about.
        RationalGuy
      • RE: Why the Space Shuttle had to be put out to pasture

        @Henryjos private industry won't lead us into space. Government has to "lead" as it did in the 60s, 70s...up till now. Hopefully governments leading won't turn into "hoping". SpaceX etc all are heavily reliant upon government funds for success. All the simpletons saying gov has to step out of the way and let natural selection produce....well that means exactly what you have said...the chineses with their massive cash surplus WILL..to everyones dismay...aim for the moon. If the US could do it with the backwards technology of the 60s, guarantee the Chinese can EASILY do it with modern technology. And what a better way for the Chinese to announce to the world that they are the biggest of the big boys, than to plant a Chinese flag on the moon.
        RyeCatcher