Shuttle Retrospective, Part Deux

Posted: July 10, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , , ,

atlantis enginesFrom Rand Simberg, 6 False Lessons Of The Space Shuttle.  I find it hard to argue with Rand, so I’ll just comment.

False Lesson #1: The Shuttle Proved That Reusable Launch Vehicles are Not Cost Effective

Comment: however, the shuttle did prove that it is not cost effective compared to expendables.  ZZ Top sings of Cheap Sunglasses (as opposed to Oakleys) and if both get lost or broken within the first month, that $6 loss hurts much less than a $160 purchase.  Similarly, while a Zippo may be a stylish and debonair way of lighting a smoke, a Bic lighter does it for about 1% of the cost.

False Lesson #2: The Shuttle Proved That We Must Move Beyond Chemical Rockets

Comment: if not chemical rockets, then what?  Graphene space elevators?  Rand holds out hope for competition and economies of scale and it’s true that quantity has a quality all its own.  However, the trained observer in me sees that competition is massively skewed by government (and certainly not just USG) intervention of all sorts (bids, contracting, subsidies, earmarks, legislation, and districts/states).  Similarly, economies of scale regarding space launch can still be categorized as unobtanium and/or vaporware and we’re still waiting for that breakthrough in propulsion, fifty-plus years into the space age.

False Lesson #3: The Shuttle Proved that Cargo and Passengers Should Travel on Different Vehicles

Comment: mission assurance and reliability have little to do with the payload being carried, whether cargo for the ISS, human beings, a sack of potatoes, or satellites.  Sadly, failures can happen at any time, including on dedicated manned missions. Additionally, off-pad failures are almost always catastrophic (Apollo 13 being the one known exception), meaning it matters little if a shuttle payload bay was carrying a gigantic satellite and matching bomb-like upper stage or simple foodstuffs for the space station.

False Lesson #4: The Shuttle Proved that NASA Should Have Stuck with, and Should Return to, the Safe and Successful Architecture of Apollo’s Heavy-Lift Vehicle and Crew Capsule

Comment (really a question): an Apollo-like vehicle and capsule in order to do what?  What is manned spaceflight trying to accomplish?  However, if every manned op looks like a lunar mission, every launch vehicle will probably look like a Saturn V.

False Lesson #5: The Worst Result of the Shuttle Program was the Death of 14 Astronauts

Comment (OK, more questions and then a comment): how many lives were lost on the nation’s interstates yesterday?  How many Americans died in World War II?  How many lost their lives on the Oregon Trail?  Death is a part of life and that includes untimely deaths.  If we know the benefits and the risks, there are some bets we should make and others we shouldn’t.  My point of view is that robotic space can (at this point) do everything we want manned space to do sans one: inspire.

False Lesson #6: The Ultimate False Lesson: That the Space Shuttle Proved Anything at All

Comment: while the shuttle’s sample size is small and the inputs are skewed, I’ll offer that the shuttle proved at minimum that it was the wrong tool for the job.  The only way you could say the shuttle was the right tool was if the job was to spend money and (generally) create national pride and a sense of unity. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 had the same sort of effect and while those events were memorable, it was for all the wrong reasons.


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