For Anyone Who Believes the Shuttle was a Waste
Recently on the internet, particularly Space Hipsters, there have been more discussions surrounding the Space Shuttle and its purpose, efficiency, safety, and accomplishments. These threads pop up from time to time, nothing new is brought forth, and most leave Facebook with some degree of annoyance, especially those of us who supported the Shuttle program and recognized its significant contributions to spaceflight, Earth sciences, and human knowledge.
Despite the tendency for strong opinions to ruin the comments section on any internet posting, I usually give my two cents on the Shuttle. This article is meant to elaborate on those two cents. Let me set the scene for those who don’t participate in the comment wars:
1.) Someone creates a thread about the Shuttle. Either its accomplishments or detriments as a program, doesn’t matter which.
2.) One or two people comment and criticize all things Shuttle, especially its safety and Earth-orbit restrictions.
3.) Pro-Shuttle people rebut, met with sensational facts like 14 astronauts died in Shuttles, and we should have spent the past 40 years on the Moon or Mars.
4.) Someone with practical, real-world experience enters the discourse and tries to set things straight. Sometimes, this is an expert such as a worker or even astronaut. More often than not, these people are generally pro-Shuttle.
5.) That person is cast down by asstronauts (self-coined term for people who try to tell experts and astronauts they are wrong).
6.) People begin to argue in circles.
7.) Someone gets banned.
8.) Several weeks later the same thing happens.
It’s a recipe for disaster that can happen in any topic; and in the Space community, the Shuttle is a popular victim. Some people, especially demographics who vividly remember Apollo, believe the Shuttle was a step backwards in human space exploration. The most common claim is that after Apollo, a Moon base or Mars mission should have been developed instead of retreating into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a supposedly dangerous vehicle that “killed 14 people”. This is sometimes paired with the ignorance, or blunt dismissal, of accomplishments onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Before going any further, it should be noted that I am biased towards the Shuttle, having been a product of its era, watching launches and following missions just a two hour drive from Kennedy Space Center. I was not starved of Apollo growing up, however. I virtually worshipped the films Apollo 13 and In the Shadow of the Moon, and was consistently wowed by the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The Shuttle, though, was the vehicle I could look forward to seeing launch, hearing its sonic booms upon reentry, and watching on NASA TV. I got to see almost half the US modules of the ISS being prepared in the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) in person, as well as the Shuttle launches that delivered them. I will never forget seeing Discovery trail behind the ISS in the sky overhead with my own eyes, just after the two vehicles had undocked.
Experiences like this make an impression on all young people. Growing up, the Shuttle was part of our culture. By dismissing the subjects of those experiences, the credibility and honor of a whole generation of spaceflight fly out the airlock, and young people are turned off the idea of space exploration from the sheer jadedness. They will internalize the belief that the 30-year long Shuttle program was a waste of time. This injustice to our future is inexcusable.
Someone may rebut that Elon Musk or other new players are igniting inspiration in our generation. In my experience, most young people know the name Elon Musk, but far less of us know what he does than what may be reported, even where I live in such proximity to Space Coast. My friends, colleagues, and I frequently encounter people who think all spaceflight ended with the Shuttle. Elon Musk and other new players still have yet to represent the entire spaceflight effort like the Shuttle has for our generation.
Here, I take a more conceptual turn by addressing the nature of exploration, which seems to be the core of the debate on more levels than just social media. Arguments about the Shuttle’s costs, reusability, and even safety get people bogged down in minute and unchangeable details that take a comments section war towards migraine territory.
What is exploration? Exploration has traditionally meant human beings visiting a place that no one from their culture had been before. Arguably the most commonly discussed exploration in “Western” historical narrative is European post-Columbian expansion, which saw humans visiting foreign continents, climates, and societies that were weeks, months, or years away from home. By the 20th century, just about all regions of Earth had been mapped or claimed. The Moon, therefore, would be the next logical place for humans to explore, because it is a sphere with a land-surface area no human had visited before. After the Moon is Mars, etc, all the way to Alpha Centauri.
I propose that exploration is no longer limited to visiting, mapping, and studying the land-surface area of spherical objects. Technological and scientific advancements in the past century or so have expanded humanity’s “world” beyond physical places where we can walk and claim resources. Our world now includes environments that humans cannot survive in, or see unaided, without tools. Here are some examples: with the invention of supercolliders and electron microscopes, we’ve discovered a whole multiverse of very-small objects that we still barely understand; with the invention of deep-diving submarines and scuba, we are re-discovering the ocean; with the invention of medical equipment like MRIs (thanks, in part, to the space program!) there is even more waiting to be known about the human body; simple things like using radiation to transmit information (e.g. radio) has created a new plane of communication; and (drum-roll) the invention of orbital spacecraft and satellites has opened a new way for humans to understand our planet, the physics of freefall, and how organisms react to spaceflight. All of these things are exploration in a brand new paradigm. The “world” is no longer mapped and claimed like the surface of the planet. New, invisible, intangible frontiers lie in humanity's grasp.
The Shuttle program’s crowning triumph is performing this exploration in space, transporting hundreds of humans and even more experiments outside the planet’s atmosphere. This exploration includes the assembly of a football-pitch sized orbital science laboratory, which has been continuously inhabited by a peaceful international community for 17 years and counting. The ISS is unlike any space station before, with a long-term useful lifespan and game changing self-sufficiency. Even basic experiments carried out on the Shuttle and ISS have had extraordinary results, some of which experts are still working to fully understand. The more specialized experiments have led to previously unforeseen discoveries in human spaceflight. Shuttle’s relatively large crew compartment allowed for NASA to train and fly professional scientists and civilians, opposed to almost-exclusively test pilots as in pre-Shuttle programs. It opened the door for the United States, Europe, and other partners for the study of long-term effects of spaceflight on the human body. By delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit, the Shuttle also helped opened our eyes to the scale of the universe, and the extent of astronomical possibilities. Thanks to the Shuttle's five servicing missions to Hubble, the telescope continues to peer out into the heavens. Just recently I saw a brand new 3D-mapping of a nebula thanks to Hubble.
One of the arguments Shuttle criticizers make is a reusable, winged vehicle may have cost more money than a simpler capsule-design, top-mounted craft like Apollo or Soyuz. Some point out that the Saturn V could have delivered four times as much payload in one launch than the Shuttle could. One short-sight of that argument is the fact that the Saturn was developed and built while NASA received 4% of the federal budget in the 1960s, at its peak. That budget started to decrease after the hardware for Apollo had been completed, even before Apollo 11 touched the Moon in 1969. None of the Saturn V was reusable. Of course, however, the Shuttle’s SRBs and Orbiter, though reusable, ended up being more expensive than previously estimated. Despite this unexpected drawback, NASA was able to sell the Shuttle to the budget-makers for over 30 years based on this reusable, Ford Ranger of the sky conceptualization, which paired the Shuttle program with a more diverse range of capabilities. Having a bus-sized payload bay with advanced equipment such as the Canadarm allowed contractors like the US military, DoD, ESA, and others to have a wide axis of control over their payloads and experiments, as opposed to launching them onboard a rocket like the Saturn V with a capsular spacecraft, which would presumably require more EVAs, some sort of tool compartment, and fully-expendable hardware. However, we’re getting into migraine territory with these far-fetched “what ifs.”
Facts: NASA placed the Shuttle program’s total cost at $196 Billion upon retirement of the fleet in 2011, or $220 Billion in 2017 dollars. This launched 135 missions and 852 passenger seats. The US Government placed the Apollo program’s total cost at $25.4 Billion in 1973, or $142 Billion in 2017 dollars. This launched 11 missions and 33 passenger seats, and built the hardware for the cancelled Apollos 18-20. Therefore, Apollo's per mission cost in 2017 dollars, not including the unflown 18-20, was approximately $12.9 Billion. By comparison, and using the same model, the Shuttle's per mission cost was $1.63 Billion. Though I want to see NASA get funding on the scale of Apollo again, there is no denying that the Shuttle's hardware was much cheaper than Apollo by the mission, even after taking into account the infrastructure built for Apollo and shared by the Shuttle, which would have inevitably been shared by any successor program.
On to safety. The Orbiter was a side-mounted vehicle with no instant crew-escape system like a launch escape tower. The Shuttle stack included two SRBs that could neither be shut down nor jettisoned until their fuel was exhausted. There was almost no chance of successfully escaping an SRB failure. In addition, “foam” insulation from the ET was a concern, with the possibility of loose fragments damaging the Orbiter’s thermal protection during launch. These concerns are grim when described on paper, and one’s thoughts gravitate towards the two Orbiters, two crews, who were tragically lost due to these types of malfunctions. And so, the safety argument makes a justifiable case. One of the larger criticisms of the two accidents is that NASA engineers and management were aware of both the problems that caused the destructions of Challenger and Columbia, even before the disasters occurred. There exists a whole discussion on the risks NASA took in allowing the vehicles to proceed in the way they did on those two horrific days; but that discussion is too large to include in this article. Instead, I will examine more concrete statistics. Apollo never lost a crew off the ground, theoretically giving it a perfect in-flight safety record. Though, the Apollo 1 fire did claim the lives of three astronauts. Despite the theoretically perfect in-flight record, Apollo only flew 11 missions. Soyuz is a more comparable vehicle for the Shuttle, with 133 currently completed Soyuz missions alongside Shuttle’s 135. Of those 140, two crews have been lost in flight, placing the current safety statistic at 1:67. With the Shuttle also having two in-flight losses, its odds stand at 1:68. Both vehicles have been altered and improved over the decades. Soyuz, however, cannot be reused. Each of the 135 Shuttle missions was performed by the same five airliner-sized, runway-landing spacecraft. Columbia: 28 flights. Challenger: 10 flights. Discovery: 39 flights. Atlantis: 33 flights. Endeavour: 25 flights.
In all spaceflight, huge risk is involved. In different programs, weak points lie in different systems or procedures. For the Shuttle, launch was a critical phase, whose design ultimately led to loss of life in both instances. For Soyuz, pressurization and re-entry are critical phases. Considering the size, amount of systems, complex engineering, and reusability of the Shuttle, the fact that it is statistically safer than a small capsule is extraordinary. This a true testament to the brilliance of the thousands who worked on the program over 30+ years, from the designers down to the people who sewed its thermal blankets.
Well, that became intense. It is neither easy nor enjoyable to discuss loss of life and tragic catastrophes, but the Shuttle deserves a defense..
The fact is, the Shuttle has contributed more to the scientific advancement of human spaceflight than any other program by far. We cannot go back in time and change the fact that the Shuttle happened, no matter how many of us would rather have seen a Moon base or a Mars mission. The Shuttle was a success, an engineering marvel, and a workhorse of exploration that delivered hundreds of pilots, scientists, doctors, and payloads to do and experiment where no one had done before, instead of land where no one had gone before. These two types of exploration are just as noble and worthy as one another. Now that the Shuttle is retired, and rightfully so, we will continue to look forward to the next object of exploration. From what we’re learning onboard the ISS, long-duration spaceflight to the Moon or Mars is significantly closer to reality than it was in the early 1970s.
Images Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover Image - Courtesy of NASA. Atlantis in the VAB being prepared for STS-38.
Borenstein, Seth. "Shuttle Cost: More than AIG Bailout, Less than War." Online Posting. July 5, 2011. Associated Press. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43631772/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/shuttle-cost-more-aig-bailout-less-war/.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. John F. Kennedy Space Center. “Space Shuttle Era Facts.” News release, 2012. Nasa.gov. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/566250main_SHUTTLE ERA FACTS_040412.pdf.
United States. 1974 NASA Authorization Hearings, Ninety-Third Congress, First Session, on H.R. 4567 (Superseded by H.R. 7528). Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1973.