Locklin on science

Good riddance to the Space Shuttle

Posted in big machines, Design, Progress by Scott Locklin on July 22, 2011

The Space Shuttle, an object lesson in the Sunk Cost Fallacy, has been with us since my early youth. This preposterous boondoggle was originally supposed to make manned space flight cheaper: to the point where getting a pound of matter into space would be as cheap as sending it to Australia. That was the only purpose for building the damn thing in the first place. The idea was, if your spaceship was reusable, it would be cheaper to send people and heavy things into space. If using the same thing multiple times isn’t cheaper, well, what’s the point? Conspicuous consumption, perhaps?

In one of its original incarnations, the Shuttle was supposed to launch like an ordinary aircraft. A jet + rocket powered “first stage” heavy lifter would propel the craft into the upper atmosphere, and the rocket propelled second stage would send the thing into space. Seems like a good idea to me. Jets are pretty easy to fly and maintain cheaply. Jets also don’t have to carry vast quantities of oxidizer. Plus; you get to reuse the whole mess.

Unfortunately, the politicians decided that building the first stage heavy lifter would cost “too much.” Instead they changed the design, and strapped a couple of solid rockets to a beefed up “orbiter” and giant non-reusable fuel tank. That wasn’t the worst of it: those pieces should have still in principle provided for a cheap launch vehicle. In practice, the silica tiles and engines turned out to have very high maintenance costs involving substantial labor, and turn around times were 1/6 of what they should have been, making the thing 6 (though more like 10) times as expensive as it was designed to be.

Really though, it is much worse than this. The shuttle was supposed to cost under $50/lb of launched payload. I can’t figure out how much mass they launched into orbit with the thing, but assuming 3/5 of the total 50,000lb payload capacity per flight (almost certainly an over estimate).

200E9 total program cost/(30,000lbs * 135 missions) = $50,000/lb

Making it a mind boggling 1000 times worse than it was supposed to be. And about 5-10x as expensive as using non-reusable spacecraft.

I guess 5-10x more expensive wouldn’t be horrible if it were incredibly safe or reliable. But as well know, it is neither safe nor reliable. The politician/managers estimated there was a 1/100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure. The engineers rated it 1/100. Both underestimated the dangers. In reality, we got amazingly lucky: hindsight informed us the early flights had more of a 1/10 danger of a catastrophic failure.

I know some wise acre will attempt to pipe up here that the purpose of the shuttle was heavy lifting capabilities, but the only reason anybody thinks this, is because they bought the propaganda. The Titan, a rocket dating from the 1950s, lifted heavier payloads. And yes, it was a lot cheaper and more reliable. In my opinion, it was also the coolest looking, and one of the most interesting rockets Americans have launched, but that’s a topic for another post.

There is an excellent history page on Nasa’s website detailing the political and engineering decisions that led to the Space Shuttle (where I got the images of prototype concepts which are better than what we got). It should be read by anyone interested in the history of launch technologies: you’ll learn about what could have been, and what the design tradeoffs were that led to this abomination. The shuttle could have been awesome; it could have used Scramjets instead of rockets. It could have used titanium instead of aluminum. It could have been designed incrementally, instead of being a multi-billion up front investment we really wish had paid off. The only reason the thing ever flew was politics; dump that much money into something, and it has to “work” -and so the Shuttle ate up NASA’s budget for decades. Rather than making progress, the Shuttle impeded progress for 30 years. It should never have flown in the first place.

What’s to replace it? Hopefully private space vehicles. They won’t be particularly innovative (though carbon fiber rocket nozzles are pretty neat), but they will be better than the shuttle. Personally, I think the 30 year Shuttle boondoggle is a great reason to shut NASA down for good. If they can’t take risks and produce new technologies, they have no further reason for existing. Kill NASA and start a new Aeronautics and Space Administration that actually innovates. Or just give the money to Elon Musk for a year; he could probably do more with one year’s worth of NASA budget ($20 billion) than NASA has done for the last 30, or is likely to do for the next 30 in its present incarnation. He’s already done more than NASA on a fraction of this money.

I’d rather see them develop something innovative (yes, this means taking risks), but they’re not going to with their present culture of time-serving bureaucrats. Something like the DC-X, or, hell, using railguns and scramjets: just make us something cool, guys. For $20 billion a year, I want a little more action than what we’re presently getting, which is zilch. Having a goal would help.

“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and ’90s.

This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people.” -Richard Nixon, a fitting epitaph to a crappy program

20 Responses

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  1. Danny Devon said, on July 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    OT: Hello. Long-term reader, first time response. I’m strarting out learning the basics about trading strategies and was wondering if there were a few books that you would recommend? I have had 4 courses in calculus and a basic course in statistics. I was wondering if the book by Vijay Singal (Beyond the Random Walk) might be the best because i don’t have a lot of expensive software or programming experience, Any point in the right direction would be appreciated, Thanks.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 25, 2011 at 7:14 pm

      That book will give you a few basic strategies which are (or at least were) real. Nothing more. It’s the only book that really does that, so I guess it’s an OK one to look at. I wouldn’t trade any of those strats, however.

    • John Flanagan said, on July 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      “Option Volatility and Pricing” by Sheldon Natenberg, is an excellent introductory book for understanding options. OV&P describes simple option trading strategies as well, and fits them into the framework of why one would trade this way, given how options work.

      Understanding options is an excellent weedout topic, whether or not you intend to trade options, because if you can’t at least wrap your head around options (and volatility in general) then you probably should find another line of work.

  2. Michael P. said, on July 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    A very good article on the same topic from 2005 – http://www.idlewords.com/2005/08/a_rocket_to_nowhere.htm

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 25, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Great article!

  3. maggette said, on July 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Nice article.

    Since reading (and watching the cover ilustration) of the old Lem and Asimov SF books from my dad, I am a fan of space flight. I don’t care if it doesn’t make any sense.

    I thought you might be interested in these links if you don’t know them already

    And a good summation of dead/alive space shuttle projects (like X33,X34, Saenger, HOTOL, Phoenix etc)

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 25, 2011 at 7:16 pm

      More great articles!

      I’m a huge fan of manned space flight as well, as are many people, which is probably why there are so many good articles on the subject. It did seem as if some mild raspberries were needed on this solemn occasion of the shuttle’s retirement.

  4. maggette said, on July 25, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    I guess you’ve already seen this talk (even though I know you tend to avoid ted talks)


  5. Brian B said, on July 31, 2011 at 9:46 am

    (directed here from @felixsalmon)

    I feel the allure of space flight, too, but … “I’m a fan of X, I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense” — substitute in any government policy for X and you have Washington today. That’s a dangerous road.

  6. Dan Weber said, on July 31, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    If you just throw out NASA, you also throw out their unmanned missions, which tended to do good science with disposable rockets. Cassini wasn’t launched on a shuttle, you’ll notice.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 31, 2011 at 9:04 pm

      Those programs don’t have to be run by NASA. JPL seems to do a lot of them; how about putting them in charge?

  7. Ron Atkins said, on August 1, 2011 at 1:43 am

    I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said. An excellent article. What could have been. First they took away the manned re-usable scramjet-powered first stage… and then we started hearing about those tiles. You could have seen the writing on the wall. And then DOD insisted on a 25 ton payload capacity with a 1,000 mile cross-range landing capability.

    I agree with you that commercial is the best way to go. As long as we leave America’s future in space in the hands of politicians we’ll never have one.

  8. tristanhambling said, on August 1, 2011 at 2:06 am

    We need more investigation on feasibility of radical ideas out there: ie.. this one from this week… Could 100 Kilometer high towers usher in the next space age? – http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/07/could-100-kilometer-high-towers-usher.html

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 1, 2011 at 2:37 am

      Seems like a great idea, except the material to build such a thing doesn’t exist, and nobody knows how to make it.

  9. Yul Tolbert said, on August 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    The Space Shuttle experience is a prime example of how politics tends to ruin science programs. After all, most politicians don’t know the difference between a retrorocket and a retrovirus!

  10. Desire Landscapes | AO:B said, on August 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    […] less expensive, but entirely conventional family of rockets – the Titans. But again, those who complain against the Shuttle program misunderstand its value; because of Kubrick it was the vehicle we wanted to see rendezvousing […]

  11. Ilya said, on August 8, 2011 at 5:28 am

    In Budget Hero 2.0, I believe I doubled (or increased by 50%) NASA’s funding, as I did with all science and R&D things. Honestly though, I really wonder why NASA didn’t decide to go with a design such as the SR-71’s (odds are with our newer technologies we could probably recreate that magnificent bird and adapt it with a set of ramjets and scramjets and a cargo bay and have her go to space on her own power), or the X-15’s (HYPERSONIC JET!).

    That said, what about the cool stuff from anime, such as a space ramp–use a giant repulsive magnet ala the MagLev trains to accelerate an object to some crazy speed, then fling it harder than Earth’s pull of gravity (2200 m/s I believe is escape velocity IIRC).

  12. shaurz said, on July 29, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    What do you think about the Skylon / SABRE engine? Pipe dream or cheaper alternative to rockets that might actually work some day? The designers of SABRE reckon Scramjets would be inappropriate for space launch.

  13. Bob Stackhouse said, on May 8, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    Wow, opinionated much? STS was literally the first attempt at a reusable spaceplane. The problems associated with a first-generation system were supposed to be worked out in subsequent generations–this was explicitly part of the plan when development cost was being traded for operational cost.

    And, by the way, the main expense with STS was the workforce–it was a giant fixed cost. The launches themselves were not an outrageous expense. And the main reasons the workforce had to be so large had to do with design decisions based on politics, money and what was possible in the 1970s, strange, irrational management philosophies (taking huge risks with some things and absurdly paranoid about others) and the fact we basically gave up on STS after Challenger (150 people die in a DC-10 and it’s fix it and move on, but 7 die in a Shuttle and we cry about it forever), ending the drive to achieve an economic flight rate.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 9, 2016 at 1:35 am

      Yes, I have opinions. Backed up by these things we science people call “facts.”
      STS came nowhere near its design specification for $50/lb cost and quick turn around time, even removing the amortization of the workforce costs or the R&D behind it. After the first couple of years, it should have been abandoned. STS-51 was inexcusable (and nobody would fly on a DC-10 if it blew up every 50 flights). STS-107 was even more inexcusable after all the other problems with the tiles. It was a wasteful, flawed design which inarguably destroyed the US manned space program. You can’t argue the latter point; show me the US manned space program which has replaced it. Does not exist. We spent all the money on the flying brick. Now NASA is incapable of building things, so it’s some kind of muslim outreach program.

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