Sacrifice Fly

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FEBRUARY 17, 2003

Sacrifice Fly

The way to honor the Columbia dead, we are now being told, is to
ensure that the space shuttle program goes on. No. The way to honor
the Columbia dead is to stop the space shuttle program--a program
that kills valiant astronauts, accomplishes almost nothing in
space, and wastes huge amounts of money for political rather than
scientific reasons. If kept flying, the space shuttle is certain to
fail again. Honor the Columbia seven by replacing the shuttle with
a new system for reaching space--new, unmanned rockets that fly
without risk to life, coupled with a new, smaller spacecraft or
"spaceplane" designed just for people and incorporating the new
technology developed in the quarter-century since the first space
shuttle was built.Yes, space exploration is inherently risky: No one expects the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to build a
spacecraft that never malfunctions. But the shuttle, the manned
spacecraft that first launched in 1981 and flies only to
"low-Earth" orbit, has proved far more deadly than, say, the moon
missions, which were conducted before pocket calculators existed.
In the 42-year history of men and women journeying into the
infinite dark, shuttle- flight failures have killed 14 astronauts
and destroyed $5 billion worth of hardware. All other manned
spacecraft failures combined have taken the lives of four
cosmonauts and destroyed a few million dollars' worth of hardware in
two Soviet accidents. NASA seems unwilling to address the fact that
the shuttle is killing its own people--nothing fundamental in its
program has changed in the 17 years since the Challenger came apart
in the air--so how can the agency be trusted on complex policy
judgments about space priorities? Nor has Congress, which views
space policy primarily with an eye toward pork, mandated change in
the face of tragedy.

Why is the shuttle prone to catastrophe? Though technologically
impressive and expertly crewed, it is too big and too complex a
piece of equipment, with too unrealistic a mission. Decades of
reuse, for one, is an unrealistic goal. The Columbia broke up on
its twenty-eighth flight--its twenty-eighth cycle of three times
the force of gravity at liftoff, followed by absolute zero in
orbit, followed by 3,000 degrees of heat at reentry, followed by a
jarring "dead- stick" (no power) landing at twice the speed of a
commercial airliner landing. Meticulous maintenance--NASA and its
contractors do an extraordinary job of caring for the shuttles, or
they'd all be rattling apart--kept the Columbia in one piece
through 27 flights. It was unreasonable to think this could go on,
and it is now unrealistic to think the three remaining shuttles, all
of which have completed approximately the same number of flight
cycles as the Columbia, will not eventually meet similar fates.

The space shuttle's size and complexity also reflect unrealistic
goals. It was designed to be able to lift a 25-ton payload of space
probes or satellites, requiring maximum size, power, and high
stress. In actual use, the typical payload weighs far less. Had
NASA continued launching its heavy payloads on standard "throwaway"
rockets--ones that carry no crew and are not expected to make
repeat journeys--as it did reliably in the 1960s at lower
real-dollar costs than the shuttle requires, then the shuttle could
have been designed as a smaller, lower-stress vehicle for people
alone. Insisting that the space shuttle be huge and max-tech meant,
for example, main engines with thousands of moving parts and
famously temperamental turbocompressors that spin at 30,000 rpm;
other simpler and more reliable rocket engines produce almost as
much thrust with far fewer parts and far less repair time. NASA
wanted something mammoth, max-tech, visually impressive, and
astonishingly costly. What it got was a mammoth, max-tech, visually
impressive, and astonishingly costly flying machine that has twice
ended up in glowing metal shards. The old Soviet space program also
built a shuttle, called the Buran, of similar size and
specifications to the Columbia. The Buran flew into orbit once, and
then the Soviet shuttle program was cancelled for being
ridiculously expensive--and equally important, of little value,
considering there is essentially nothing that shuttles accomplish
at higher prices that rockets and other spacecraft cannot at lower
ones.

In terms of lifting payloads, the shuttle also does nothing unmanned
rockets could not do more cheaply and without risk to human life.
Industry turns out to have little interest in shuttle-born
experiments or manufacturing; hardly any shuttle payloads have been
commercial because it has turned out that industry has no interest
in orbital manufacturing. All the shuttle is really useful for is
"life science"--studying the human body's response to space--and for
keeping the astronaut corps skilled at going into orbit, on the
assumption that astronauts may someday prove essential to society.
There isn't any pure science done aboard the space shuttle that
could not be done at a fraction of the cost on unmanned launches,
as (among others) Robert Park, director of public information at
the American Physical Society, a physicists' organization, has
noted. It was heart-wrenching to see The New York Times, on February
4, devote an article to the suggestion that the science packages
aboard the Columbia were worth an astronaut's life. No one had to
be there to push the buttons on the Mediterranean Israeli Dust
Experiment or to spin the wheel on a little gizmo that made a
microgravity flame-ball.

NASA defenders say the core problem is agency underfunding. "I don't
think you can continue to make draconian cuts in this budget and
accomplish our mission safely," Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
pronounced the day of the Columbia loss. But Hutchison and others
who decry "draconian" cuts in the budget don't say that NASA
funding has barely changed in the last decade. Five years ago, the
NASA budget was $14 billion, which inflates to $15.5 billion in
current dollars; last year, the NASA budget was $15 billion. That's
a 3 percent real-dollar cut over five years, during a period when
the price of electronics, which NASA uses heavily, has declined
fast. It's true that NASA budgets have fallen in real-dollar terms
since about 15 years ago. But that was the moment when the Air
Force, once a shuttle user, formally divorced from operations with
the civilian space agency; the Air Force has since been granted a
budget that makes it the world's second-most expensive space
program, surpassing Russia's spending. Those who claim "draconian"
U.S. space cuts never mention that, when numbers for NASA and the
Air Force are combined, appropriations have steadily increased.

Most important, while the NASA budget has declined somewhat in real
terms in recent years, shuttle launches have also declined during
the same period. The essential number--spending per shuttle
mission--has gone up, not down. In 1997, for example, the NASA
budget of $15.5 billion in today's dollars funded eight shuttle
flights. In 2002, the NASA budget of $15 billion funded five
shuttle flights. That's a 3 percent funding drop but a 38 percent
reduction in flights. NASA figures from the past decade show the
same trend: steadily increased spending per shuttle flight as the
number of launches declines by a greater amount than overall budget
contraction. Discounting for one year when the fleet was grounded,
since 1997 the average price of a shuttle mission in current
dollars has been $448 million. Last year, NASA spent $640 million
per shuttle launch. The notion that the shuttle program is starved
for funds is a total fiction intended to justify budget
featherbedding.

And why not? Featherbedding has become the essence of the shuttle
program. Senator Hutchison wants more shuttle spending--and what a
coincidence, she hails from Texas, where the shuttle's
flight-control center is located. You'll likely be hearing similar
calls from politicians from Florida, California, Maryland, Alabama,
and Ohio--the primary states for NASA operations--as well as from
Illinois, Washington, Colorado, and Georgia--states where Boeing
and Lockheed Martin, the shuttle's prime contractors, have
important presences.

The space shuttle's price and unreliability are especially dismaying
since the whole reason the program came into existence was to cut
costs and increase reliability. As the Apollo moon missions wound
down at the beginning of the 1970s, Congress approved shuttle
construction on the promise that a winged, mostly reusable
spacecraft would be much cheaper than throwaway rockets. Congress
was originally told the shuttle would cost about $20 million per
launch in today's dollars. Had Congress been told the real price per
launch would be $640 million, the current number--about the same as
the cost of an entire Apollo mission to the moon--the shuttle
proposal would have been laughed off Capitol Hill. Congress was
also originally told the fleet would be so reliable that a shuttle
would fly into orbit once a week. Had Congress been told the
shuttle would operate only five times per year, again the original
proposal would have been laughed off Capitol Hill.

The deep irony in all this overspending is that, in many respects,
the shuttle program is actually standing in the way of ambitious
space exploration. NASA isn't even considering a return to the moon
or sending men and women to Mars because the shuttle is so
expensive and fallible that big plans are currently out of the
question; everything NASA might spend on grand plans is instead
going down the shuttle drain. Commentators complain that NASA has
not had grand ambitions in two decades. It is no coincidence that
this is also the period of the space shuttle, which stands in the
way of the next great space achievement.

Which brings us back to how to memorialize the daring and valor of
the seven men and women who perished amid the shards of the
Columbia. End the space shuttle program now, and use the next
decade of shuttle funding to design new space-launch systems that
would be less expensive and more reliable, taking advantage of the
last three decades of technology. Many analysts believe that a new
generation of low-cost throwaway rockets for launching heavy loads,
plus a small spaceplane for those occasions when people really are
needed in orbit, would cut costs and improve safety so much that
grand ambitions in space would become possible again. Such
suggestions are not pipe dreams: Improving technology should make
throwaway rockets cheaper, and the United States had a functioning
spaceplane called the X-15 half a century ago, but research into
spaceplane ideas was effectively sidetracked by NASA when the
shuttle was authorized because spaceplanes, being affordable, would
undercut shuttle constituent funding.

Making grand space ambitions, such as a return to the moon or flight
to Mars possible again--and allowing the next generation of
astronauts to pursue them aboard spacecraft that don't fall
apart--would be a lasting monument to the Columbia crew. And, if
designing the successor to the shuttle means no space flights for a
decade, space will still be there when the United States is finally
ready to return in force.

By the Editors

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