Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

I get out of my car,
step into the night,
and look up at the sky.
And there’s something
bright, traveling fast.
Look at it go!
Just look at it go!

Kate Bush, Hello Earth

[The haunting a capella chorus comes from a Georgian folk song, Tsin Tskaro (By the Spring)]

I read the various eulogies, qualified and otherwise, on the occasion of the space shuttle’s retirement.  Personally, I do not mourn the shuttle’s extinction, because it never came alive: not as engineering, not as science, not as a vision.

Originally conceived as a reusable vehicle that would lift and land on its own, the shuttle was crippled from the get-go.  Instead of being an asset for space exploration, it became a liability – an expensive and meaningless one, at that.  Its humiliating raison d’ être was to bob in low earth orbit, becoming a toy for millionaire tourists by giving them a few seconds of weightlessness.  The space stations it serviced were harnessed into doing time-filling experiments that did not advance science one iota (with the notable exception of the Hubble), while most of their occupants’ time was spent scraping fungus off walls.  It managed to kill more astronauts than the entire Apollo program.  The expense of the shuttle launches crippled other worthwhile or promising NASA programs, and its timid, pious politics overshadowed any serious advances to crewed space missions.

In the past, I had lively discussions with Robert Zubrin about missions to Mars (and Hellenic mythology… during which I discovered that he, like me, loves the Minoans).  We may have disagreed on approach and details, but on this he and I are in total agreement: NASA has long floated adrift, directionless and purposeless.  Individual NASA subprograms (primarily all the robotic missions), carried on in the agency’s periphery, have been wildly successful.  But the days when launches fired the imagination of future scientists are long gone.

It’s true that the Apollo missions were an expression of dominance, adjuncts to the cold war.  It’s also true that sending a crewed mission to Mars is an incredibly hard undertaking.  However, such an attempt — even if it fails — will address a multitude of issues: it will ask the tough question of how we can engineer sustainable self-enclosed systems (including the biological component, which NASA has swept under the rug as scientifically and politically thorny); it will allow us to definitively decide if Mars ever harbored life; it will once again give NASA – and the increasingly polarized US polity – a focus and a worthwhile purpose.

I’m familiar with all the counterarguments about space exploration in general and crewed missions in particular: these funds could be better used alleviating human misery on earth; private industry will eventually take up the slack; robotic missions are much more efficient; humans will never go into space in their current form, better if we wait for the inevitable uploading come the Singularity.

In reality, funds for space explorations are less than drops in the ocean of national spending and persistent social problems won’t be solved by such measly sums; private industry will never go past low orbit casinos (if that); as I explained elsewhere, we in our present form will never, ever get our brains/minds into silicon containers; and we will run out of resources long before such a technology is even on our event horizon, so waiting for gods… er, AI overlords won’t avail us.

Barring an unambiguous ETI signal, the deepest, best reason for crewed missions is not science. I recognize the dangers of using the term frontier, with all its colonialist, triumphalist baggage. Bravado aside, we will never conquer space. At best, we will traverse it like the Polynesians in their catamarans under the sea of stars. But space exploration — more specifically, a long-term crewed expedition to Mars with the express purpose to unequivocally answer the question of Martian life — will give a legitimate and worthy outlet to our ingenuity, our urge to explore and our desire for knowledge, which is not that high up in the hierarchy of needs nor the monopoly of elites. People know this in their very marrow – and have shown it by thronging around the transmissions of space missions that mattered.

It’s up to NASA to once again try rallying people around a vision that counts.  Freed of the burden of the shuttle, perhaps it can do so, thereby undergoing a literal renaissance.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, September 1962

Images: Pat Rawlings, Beyond; Randy Halverson, Plains Milky Way; European Space Agency, High Aurora.

22 Responses to “The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle”

  1. Walden2 says:

    I admit for a while I have been skeptical about NASA’s new objective to send humans to a planetoid by 2025. I wonder if it is just a bone being thrown to distract us from other things going on (or not) with the space industry. Most of my reservations were left regarding just how practical is it to send people to explore a planetoid as opposed to a robot vessel such as Dawn and Hayabusa.

    However, as you say in your excellent and to the point article, Athena, it is about something much more and much bigger than just going to a big rock in space. The spirit counts for a lot in whether we will continue to explore space or not. To quote the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

  2. Athena says:

    Lovely quote, Larry.

    Like you, I’m suspicious of the asteroid mission. It makes no sense in any dimension. Mars is a real goal.

  3. A beautifully written and argued piece, Athena. Bravo!

    I completely agree about the Mars goal, and about the need to set difficult, urgent challenges. As individuals, and as a society, we always do best under extreme pressure and when there’s a challenge that galavinizes, excites, and unifies us toward a seemingly impossible goal. Kennedy’s speech and the achievement of Apollo 11 exemplified that perfectly (as did the Allied response in WWII).

    I’m not such a harsh critic of the Shuttle as you, although as it turned out, through underfunding of NASA in general, it did drain funds away from other projects, notably robotic missions which could have achieved more for less. But I think through the Shuttle and ISS a great deal was learned in engineering and space habitation terms that will serve us well in the future. I actually found the program inspiring, despite all its flaws and failures. But, you’re right: now’s the time to push on to loftier goals with all the energy and resources we can muster.

  4. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article, David!

    I’m not sure we learned a lot about space habitation with the shuttle. ISS and Soyuz did teach us a bit about human physiology and psychology — though they were patently not self-sustaining systems. Also, the crew selection would never work for long-term voyages.

  5. Great post, Athena – smart and passionate. I’m divided over my feelings about the Shuttle. It was always a short-sighted compromise. It was also a big beautiful white bird. But you’re right – now the Shuttle has left the building, maybe at last the real space age can begin. I don’t think it’ll be down to NASA, however. Kennedy’s words, inspiring as they were, were a thinly-disguised a Cold War rally to beat the Soviets at all costs. Once the space race was won, the perceived need for Apollo evaporated. I think the real pioneering will begin, as it always has, when wealthy individuals and hungry businesses discover there’s money to be made in them thar space-hills.

  6. Athena says:

    Kennedy’s words were definitely what you say, Graham — I alluded to the symbolism behind the Apollo program. However, I don’t think space will become lucrative for a while, which makes private funding unlikely. If space exploration is no longer up to NASA, then we have to ask what NASA is there for.

  7. Caliban says:

    Well, I’m just a dittohead at this point. It’s clear that NASA’s space telescope and robotic probe missions have in fact been a huge success (aside from a few shot down by Martian Defense Forces 🙂 ) both scientifically and from popular interest. But the shuttle program, while a useful step, became a drag on NASA long ago. And frankly the same goes for the international space station; aside from a few more studies on the effects of long-duration space flight on humans, none of the promised scientific advances materialized (and in fact none were expected).

    I do worry that without the shuttle NASA will be aimless. I hope they continue an aggressive space telescope and probe mission, which they actually do quite well.

  8. Athena says:

    You hit a major point in your reply, Calvin: “in fact no scientific advances were expected” — the space stations were literally and metaphorically holding cells just to show something was still twitching feebly in the crewed missions portion of the program. The robotic missions under NASA’s aegis have been spectacularly successful; but the ditherings about crewed missions to the moon… no, an asteroid… well, maybe Mars… are not doing much good to the agency’s image or adding to its tangible achievements.

    Martian Defense Forces, hehehe! Babylon 5, much?

  9. A.A. Roi says:

    While I am happy the shuttle program is over, and that the future is now open for the numerous private companies that are working on replacing it, I do think it’s a bit rich comparing unfavorably the death tolls between the shuttles and the Apollo mission. The shuttle program ran 30 years. There were 135 manned missions. How does Apollo compare to that?

    While NASA has definitely long since become a bloated and directionless bureaucracy, most of the newer aerospace companies that are building replacements to the shuttle employ many former NASA engineers.

    Sure, we should have been at the point we are 10 years ago, but i don’t believe it was the embarrassment to the space age you suggest it was.

  10. Athena says:

    The shuttle deaths happened in service to politics, not science or exploration — and also with a vehicle supposed to be a safe “space bus”. Private companies will never undertake endeavors like sending long-term expeditions to Mars, because they never have (except as subcontracts, from building cathedrals to exploring the world for fame and profit). This universal fact won’t change for this case. The shuttle was a failure even on its own terms and we should have been on Mars 20 years ago, though your mileage may (literally) vary.

  11. Asakiyume says:

    I agree with you about the space shuttle. It was *so* expensive to run. The idea, originally, was to have something efficient and reusable, and while the shuttles were, at least, reusable, each launch still seemed to require as much money as a rocket launch.

    I do like Walden2’s quote from Saint Exupery, too. And, I think any bold endeavor can be worth spending money on, if people are committed to it and their imaginations are fired. The pragmatic benefits come from unintended positive consequences of the research–you just do it, and the benefits come in places you’re not expecting.

  12. Athena says:

    Exactly! Much of our progress in medicine came from basic research that nobody expected to yield any concrete benefits. It had been undertaken for the sake of knowledge alone — yet most chemotherapy and several other crucial applications were transformed by its results.

  13. Walden2 says:

    Apollo went to the Moon and placed humans there multiple times, while the Space Shuttle stayed in Low Earth Orbit and in the last decade spent most of its time building and servicing the ISS. Apollo brought back hundreds of pounds of lunar surface samples, which we are still learning from today. And quite frankly even though it along with Mercury and Gemini lasted less than the Space Shuttle, inspired me far more and even once made me think we could have been on Mars by now as in permanent human colony.

    Ask Joe Random on the street what the ISS is for and the answer will likely start with “Ummm…” Some might say it is preparing us for long-duration missions to others worlds. Well, then, what were Salyut and Skylab and Mir all about?! We are actually less ready to send humans to any place past LEO than we were in 1972!

    That said, I am grateful to see the progress with the robotic missions, though I also fear another lull coming. We should have probes being readied for Europa and Titan and many other interesting worlds, but right now they are just PowerPoint presentations.

  14. Athena says:

    Actually the ISS is worse than aimless, because NASA stopped funding any biological studies beyond microbiology a while ago. As far as I know, the studies of mice bred in low gravity were never completed or published, and that was it for higher order work. How exactly is studying garden-variety bacteria preparing us for long-duration missions?

  15. John Frazer (Boulder, Co) says:

    Another reason to say the Shuttle was crippled from the start, is that it was designed as much if not more as a USAF attack vehicle, as for our civil space agency’s vehicle.
    The Nixon administration told NASA it wouldn’t get any more funding for it unless they accepted AF funding, which meant AF design requirements.
    In lieu of their own craft like the X-20 Dyna-Soar, they wanted something to take off from Vandenburg on a polar trajectory and do a single pass over the USSR for recon and shedding payload (for such a single orbit pass, it could carry several times its orbital payload, if it all was shed on the way I.E. warheads). It was to land at Vandenburg 90 minutes later, it had to have enough crossrange because the launch site would move with Earth’s rotation. Having wings as well as the main engines and crew and work and habitation considerations made it as complex as it is.
    This killed it as a cheap, reliable “Space Truck” as it was initially sold. Then when the costs mounted and its own failings led to the Challenger loss, the USAF bailed on it, leaving us with the lemon.
    As well, it was good for its own reasons to make it as complex as possible, costing as much as possible: It spread lots of money around lots of congressional districts.
    See also Homer Hickham’s blog “Not A Culture, But Perhaps a Cult”, shortly after the loss of the Columbia
    “Every engineer knows a design that tries to bypass the realities of physics, chemistry, and strengths of materials by applying complexity will fail eventually no matter how much attention is given to it.”

    So, I honestly don’t feel it’s my own disappointment with the non-status of our space program to say that the Shuttle’s “legacy” is fraudulent waste of taxpayer’s money as a political patronage plum. A betrayal of Kennedy’s speech and the speeches made after Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia to honor the losses and make our future efforts meaningful.
    It never was meaningful, other than (over)spending. It was a waste (deliberate, by much evidence) of our enthusiasm to go into space.

  16. Athena says:

    Yes, from Dyno-Soar to dinosaur in several expensive steps. Thank you for the SpaceRef article, very pertinent analysis.

  17. John Frazer (Boulder, Co) says:

    Walden2 says:
    July 27, 2011
    Ask Joe Random on the street what the ISS is for and the answer will likely start with “Ummm…”

    Despite what might have been advertised for it, it’s been since early in any design process, a contractor’s feeding trough. As things progressed beyond borrowing time on Mir, it developed largely as a guaranteed =~40 item launch manifest for the Shuttle fleet.
    We have these Shuttles, and we want to keep them flying to keep the tax dollars flowing to the contractors in the congressional districts. We could launch a station in a few ways:

    1) like all previous successful station volumes have been launched, it’s a replacement for an upper stage on a big booster. What might have been the second stage tankage becomes the volume. This is the way Skylab, the various Salyuts and Mir were launched
    The problem is it doesn’t offer any launches to the Shuttle infrastructure, and in one shot it puts up five or so times the Shuttle’s useful payload, for a fraction of the cost and risk. This doesn’t look so good.

    2) Another way which was looked at is to put a station up as a complex tinker-toy modular construct, taking many Shuttle flights and much assembly time. This is the best, because it takes lots of study ($) and R&D (more $) as well as the launches. This lets us justify the constant and increasing flow of tax money to the contractors, and makes it look as if the money’s well spent.

  18. Walden2 says:

    Apparently studying microorganisms aboard the ISS has shown that Salmonella grown up there made mice three times sicker than a control group back on Earth.

    The details here:

  19. Athena says:

    The results per se are not surprising. What’s interesting is that the change can fall on either side of the toxicity spectrum, and seems to be not predictable from first principles (although they may not have looked systematically for patterns, or tested enough bacterial categories to reach definitive conclusions).

  20. Walden2 says:

    Looks like Europe wants to get into the sending humans to planetoids game that NASA is talking about. Maybe this will be what it takes to make it a reality, or maybe we’ve just added a whole new level of red tape:

  21. Astronist says:

    A small correction, Athena: so far as I know, the Shuttle was never used and never intended to be used to carry fare-paying passengers on suborbital hops (“a few seconds of weightlessness”) or orbital flights (if that is what you meant by “to bob in low earth orbit”). I note that you consider using a vehicle to serve the wealthiest section of the fare-paying public as “humiliating”: I wonder whether you would extend this to other transport systems such as luxury ocean liners or airships?

    Oxford, UK

  22. Athena says:

    You misread that sentence, Stephen. Humiliating for the ostensible mission of the shuttle and its siblings (scientific/space exploration), not for the wealthy. For the wealthy it would be just another faddish toy, like most other things.

    On the larger issue, I don’t like the idea of cattle-like transportation with knees up to your chest and locked coin-operated lavatories, no. Call me a raging socialist.