Don’t cry for me…

July 2011


The Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning, marking the safe completion of the final flight of the three decade program. There is no viable replacement for U.S. manned access to space (though there are several potentially promising commercial efforts underway), so U.S. astronauts and other crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will be solely reliant upon Russian Soyuz capsules for the foreseeable future.

For those that remember the status of American space efforts — military, intelligence and civilian — at the end of the Reagan era, it is hardly an unfair question to ask ‘what went wrong’? I had the opportunity to ask representatives of the space policy arm of each administration since Carter that very question a few months back and one resounding theme involved the shuttle itself.

A reusable, manned space launch vehicle was a promising objective, and there is no doubt that the shuttle program made a significant contribution to manned space flight. Many brave men and women served aboard the five operational orbiters. Fourteen died and two orbiters were lost. Raising issues with the shuttle program on the day of its retirement is not to tarnish valiant memories but it is essential to understand the full impact of the program.

Almost from the start, it seems, the shuttle program over-promised. It proved too expensive and complex to achieve the kinds of regeneration rates and economies of scale that had been used to justify the up-front investment in the first place. Yet it proved impossible to cancel — or even fund a replacement program while it continued to be funded. And at the end of the day, as one of the administration representatives pointed out, if you’re trying to commit now — today — to the way you’re going to be getting to low earth orbit in 30 years, you’re approaching the problem fundamentally wrong.

The shuttle is ultimately an example of how we cannot approach spaceflight moving forward. One, exquisite system cannot be allowed to consume so much of the available resources that an alternative cannot be devised, funded, developed and fielded at the same time as existing operations are funded. The expense of sustaining the ISS is noteworthy here.

All this matters to the U.S. military because a robust commercial space sector is part of the foundation of national security space. Right now, that commercial sector is attempting to rejuvenate itself after two decades of decline — decline for which it has itself to blame, decline for which the government bureaucracy is to blame and decline for which the requirements and acquisition process is to blame. For too long, the shuttle program has been a drain on the national space endeavor, has entailed too great an opportunity cost and has acted as a weight on forward progress.

So as we mark the end of the shuttle era, the question is not just how we get ourselves back into space. If we should, we need to make that case to the American people and allocate money despite the period of fiscal austerity. And then we need to get there in a more agile and flexible way and plot a course that is fundamentally different from the shuttle, ISS and now-defunct Constellation programs.

Posted by nhughes in History, Innovation

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  • John Byron

    America’s manned space program came to an abrupt halt in the early ’70s under Nixon when he axed the Apollo program that had taken us to the moon. The shuttle program, started by Nixon shortly after, quickly morphed into a jobs program, contracts spread around to nearly 400 congressional districts and the congressional delegations from ‘space states’ (FL, AL, OH, CA. MD, TX, MI, etc.) politically committed to sustaining the program without regard to party lines.

    Loss of Challenger in ’86 put a big kink in the scope of shuttle planning, ending its future as the sole launch vehicle for military and national payloads (the Air Force launch programs had essentially died, which is why it took three years to ramp up and get back to launching anything, manned or unmanned). But it recovered even with this loss of mission, the military component replaced with a new purpose, as primary constructor and supplier for what became the International Space Station. And the purpose of ISS? Underneath it all, to justify continuation of the shuttle program. Got that? We needed the shuttle to built the space station, which we needed to justify the shuttle.

    Neither of these programs, shuttle or ISS have come remotely close to meeting their stated goals … or budgets. But the jobs flourished and, though ISS came within one vote in the House of being cancelled in 1994, the politicians kept both programs alive, primary purpose to support spending in their districts.

    While all this has been going on, unmanned space science has moved forward at a steady pace, its only inhibiter the costs of shuttle and ISS cutting deeply into its funding. NASA’s rationale is that we need public support for all space effort, unmanned science included, and that support can only be maintained with a manned space program and all the hoohah that attends it.

    So the Space Turkey is dead. Judge it two ways. Having lost 40% of its assets in disasters, the shuttle program was a very costly and dangerous R&D effort that produced little other than a lot of launches and flight-time in low earth orbit. But it also transformed the employment and contracts side of the business with a large number of stable jobs and long-range aerospace contracts that gave over three decades of largess to the communities where the work was. As one trained in science, I rue the opportunity cost of these programs on serious exploration of the universe. As a long-time resident of the Space Coast, I’ve liked the dollar benefits of the programs in our community but now have deep concerns over the proximate loss of around 8,000 jobs paid for by NASA money …. and the 14,000 indirect jobs – the waitress moms and gas stations owners – that will follow. Most of my neighbors think this Faustian bargain was worth it – I’m not so sure.

  • Matt Yankee

    Was the shuttle program in the works at the time of the Apollo termination? How far away are we really from routine, manned and private space flight?

  • John Byron

    Apollo/shuttle: no.

    Private space flight to where? Can go as a (paying) private citizen via Soyuz to ISS right now. At least two private plans underway for sub-orbital ‘tourist’ launches. To the moon? Long long time away. To mars? Never (or at least not round-trip, the cosmic radiation on the journey an unsurmountable problem that somehow gets glossed over by space weenies).

  • Byron

    Ducky, I can’t begin to tell you the different ways you’re wrong about the space program, but I’ll drop one on you: Sit down one day and look around your home. Then ask yourself how much of what you see are spin-offs of space research. You won’t get the right answer, because you’re biased. The truth of the matter is that there’s a hell of a lot of tech in common use today that is direct or secondary fallout from NASA and space science.

    The point is that there is no loss when science is working to solve huge complex problems. There is always things that spin off the learning curve that end up somewhere in your house. Research ALWAYS pays off, even when it’s wrong! When it’s wrong, it tells you not to try that again.

    Shoot that one down and I’ll give you another you can’t shoot down.

  • Matt Yankee

    When I said we I meant USA. One big leap I would like to see is affordable, commercial space flight for average, traveling Americans. Like reducing flight times across oceans to one or two hours. If this was affordable many people would do it for the view and the float on the ride. I would think that to be a Huge market. And of course it would be a good thing to be able to ship military assets in such speed.

    Prompt global strike and prompt global USA boot up your ass. Would be potent.

  • John Byron

    Byron: you’re mistaken if you think I’m blasting ‘the space program.’ My beef is with the manned space program during the shuttle years, when not much was done and not much was invented as direct result. Far from denying that space invention has benefited all, I’d like to have seen more of it … the more we would have if we hadn’t been sending the shuttle up to roll around earth in useless low-earth orbit.

    When we lost CHALLENGER, one of the biggest casualties was The Mating Medakas, the high school science project (I’m not making this up) to breed tropical fish in space. My friend called the overall shuttle science effort Frogs In Space – and he was the NASA announcer for shuttle launches for over ten years.

    Yes, space science has produced many good things. Imagine how much more it would have produced if it wasn’t wasted on the silliness and grandstanding that the shuttle program substituted for true progress. And ISS may someday actually do some good, but if you contrast its original promise with its actual operation, it’s a paltry delivery from grandiose plans.

    Matt: decouple in your mind cost-to-orbit for unmanned launches from cost-to-orbit in manned shots. The average cost-per-pound to LEO of unmanned-launch cargo is in the range of $3600 to $4600. For manned shots, more than double, $9200 to 11,200 per pound to LEO. Neither figure includes program development costs, facilities cost, or overhead. Either way, it’s doable if cost is no object, be the payload a vital military spare or some rich dude who wants to ride a spacecraft. But of course cost always does come in and you’ll have a tough time getting anyone – government or private – to pony up the big bucks needed to mount such a low-payoff program.

  • Byron

    Copy that, sir. Complete agreement. But…. we’ll never learn a thing about space, really learn, if MEN keep their feet on the ground, gazing at the stars, like they have since Gallileo’s time.

  • Derrick

    Space is of vital importance to global security. That’s why President Kennedy got all the nations to sign the ban on weapons in space treaty back in the 60s. Nuclear weapons in space would not have to fight gravity to reach their targets upon launch…a satellite armed with nukes is essentially a first strike weapon.

    Plus orbiting spy satellites are the standard for most intelligence gathering, targeting, etc. And the communications and GPS are invaluable to directing a globally forward deployed military…ie. the US.

    I personally felt the Shuttle was a worthwhile experiment…perhaps a bit rushed. But with the shuttles gone, it’s time to focus on the hypersonic jet. No need to blow the budget on the research as it’s not a big rush…but it shouldn’t be abandoned altogether either.

  • Phil C.

    “One, exquisite system cannot be allowed to consume so much of the available resources that an alternative cannot be devised, funded, developed and fielded at the same time as existing operations are funded.” You could say the same about the DoD: JSF, Future Combat System, DDG-1000, NMCI, Navy ERP, …

  • Emilio

    Ah, yes, the control of high orbitals is a clear need. The fact that we (the Western Hemisphere) have not yet done what Jerry Pournelle designed in the ’50s does not mean that in cannot and will not be done…

    BTW, a nice book to read is Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Phil C,

    I almost spit out my morning coffee when you called NMCI an “exquisite system”…

    But a good point nonetheless.

  • Retired Now

    N.M.C.I. stands for

    No More Communications Infrastructure

    Unfriendly and cost the same (so far) as a carrier.

    Could have built CVN-80 USS ENTERPRIZE for the cost of NMCI so far. U. S. Govt got taken to the cleaners on NMCI contracts.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Non-mission capable Internet.

    Has a nice ring to it. If you can log on. Which is doubtful.

  • Byron

    Emillio: I was going to bring up what Pournelle had to say about NASA, but SWMBO would ban me for a month if I did 😉