30 August 2005


I'm a sucker for the magic of space exploration — sending both robots and people — but the space shuttle program is exactly what's wrong with NASA. In A Rocket To Nowhere, Maciej Ceglowski explains why.

Future archaeologists trying to understand what the Shuttle was for are going to have a mess on their hands. Why was such a powerful rocket used only to reach very low orbits, where air resistance and debris would limit the useful lifetime of a satellite to a few years? Why was there both a big cargo bay and a big crew compartment? What kind of missions would require people to assist in deploying a large payload? Why was the Shuttle intentionally crippled so that it could not land on autopilot? 1 Why go through all the trouble to give the Shuttle large wings if it has no jet engines and the glide characteristics of a brick? Why build such complex, adjustable main engines and then rely on the equivalent of two giant firecrackers to provide most of the takeoff thrust? Why use a glass thermal protection system, rather than a low-tech ablative shield? And having chosen such a fragile method of heat protection, why on earth mount the orbiter on the side of the rocket, where things will fall on it during launch?

Taken on its own merits, the Shuttle gives the impression of a vehicle designed to be launched repeatedly to near-Earth orbit, tended by five to seven passengers with little concern for their personal safety, and requiring extravagant care and preparation before each flight, with an almost fetishistic emphasis on reuse. Clearly this primitive space plane must have been a sacred artifact, used in religious rituals to deliver sacrifice to a sky god.

As tempting as it is to picture a blood-spattered Canadarm flinging goat carcasses into the void, we know that the Shuttle is the fruit of what was supposed to be a rational decision making process. That so much about the vehicle design is bizarre and confused is the direct result of the Shuttle's little-remembered role as a military vehicle during the Cold War.

By the time Shuttle development began, it was clear that the original vision of a Shuttle as part of a larger space transportation system was far too costly and ambitious to receive Congressional support. So NASA concentrated on building only the first component of its vision ...

It's long and fascinating. I'd already been convinced that the Shuttle was a mess, but if I hadn't been, this article would have convinced me.

Update: @vruba at Tupperwolf has a related thought about the Shuttle.

Think of the Space Shuttle. Its basic technical design was silly. Both its fatal accidents were caused by problems that came from its byzantine liftoff configuration. If there were a problem at a certain point in the ascent, the plan was to reverse through its own exhaust plume. It was late, overbudget, and missed its turnaround time promise by a factor of five.

But its advocates knew it was the Shuttle or nothing. Their predecessors had sustained the Apollo program for more than a decade upon the firm assurance that getting white men to the moon, the moooon, should be budgeted under the heading of defending freedom. Of course, Congress eventually crunched the numbers and worked out that it wasn’t actually killing any Viet Cong whatsoever. The Shuttle people used a cleverer ruse: they spread its construction, and thus federal money, throughout the country. It had parts made in every state. I have no idea what’s in North Dakota or Maine that gets people into orbit, but they found something. And so Congress never wanted to cancel it, even when it was clearly the wrong idea. The Shuttle’s political engineering was a model of simplicity and reliability.

(Also, I would bet you a pound of fine medium-roasted Sidamo coffee beans, with notes of wine, marmelade, and blueberry, that defense and intelligence people were quietly pulling hard for the Shuttle well into the ’90s.)

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