Rocket’s Red Glare

You almost certainly by now have heard about Saturday’s catastrophic failure on board the Space Shuttle Columbia. The national conversation about this has already moved from the initial shock and grief into the deeper question of what this means for the Shuttle program specifically and U.S. manned space flight in particular.

Here’s my two cents: it’s time to put the Shuttle away for good.

I haven’t always felt this way. As a kid I was captivated by manned space flight. I even managed to win a national essay contest on the subject, and get sent to Space Camp in Montgomery, Alabama — a real thrill for any pre-teen space geek, I can tell you! And as someone who hails from Dayton, Ohio — the Birthplace of Aviation — I have a strong emotional connection to the idea of flight as a liberating experience, and something humans should pursue just because they can.

However, over the years, I’ve come to feel that the Shuttle isn’t just a poor way to pursue that dream; it’s the antithesis of that dream. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare whose longevity has risked the lives of hundreds of brave scientists and aviators, and stifled innovation in space flight, for no definable purpose. It is, in short, a travesty.

Don’t believe me? Consider how the Shuttle was originally sold to the American public: as a simple, affordable “space truck” that could reduce the cost of getting people and cargo into space, while simultaneously increasing safety and reliability. Now look at the reality of what we’ve gotten for our investment — a ship that is both more expensive than using disposable rockets, and less reliable.

Want proof? Read these:

The Shuttle is an engineering marvel. So was the Spruce Goose — but you don’t see anybody demanding that the government keep that contraption flying.

Even with the Shuttle’s perpetual maintenance problems and incredibly inflated operating costs (know anyone who can defend $1 billion per shot as “affordable”?), though, in my mind it boils down to one thing: the objective. I don’t mind asking people to risk their lives, if it’s to do something so amazing, so groundbreaking, that the risk is worth it. The perfect example of this would be the trips to the Moon — those were a turning point in human history, something the entire human race can look on with pride and awe.

In contrast, what is the objective of the Shuttle program? Nobody knows! A variety of rationales have been trotted out over the years, with each being discarded as reality proved them impractical. The Shuttle was supposed to be able to bring damaged satellites back to Earth for repair — until it turned out that nobody wanted to do that (it’s cheaper just to loft a replacement on a disposable rocket). It was supposed to provide opportunities for groundbreaking research — but its voyages are typically too few and far between for real science to be done. It was supposed to enable us to build a space station to act as a permananent human home in space — but the station that we ended up with could just as easily be serviced by old-style capsules (as the Russians have done quite successfully with their aging Soyuz craft).

In short, the Shuttle is a fantastic piece of engineering with no reason to exist. Nobody can articulate what it does better than conventional rockets — and yet we have continued to ask brave people to risk their lives on it. For what? For junk science, P.R. stunts, and so on? For this we put the lives of our best and bravest at risk?

I’m not saying that we should abandon manned space flight — far from it. I’d rather see a much more ambitious manned program. What I’m saying is that we have to get beyond the false dichotomy that NASA has peddled to the public for twenty years — that manned space flight equals the Shuttle, and losing the Shuttle means abandoning the dream of putting humans in space. There are alternatives — just not alternatives that NASA wants to explore. The Shuttle program survives today because of bureaucratic inertia and an inability to look past billions in sunk costs. Until these problems are remedied, I have a feeling that our best men and women will still be going aloft on the Shuttle for a long time — and more of them, unfortunately, will not be coming back..