Good riddance to the Space Shuttle
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