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 be more than just the two cents. Let me just set the scene for those who don’t see the posts:
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 design.
3.) Pro-shuttle people rebut, met with sensational facts like 14 astronauts died in a Shuttle, and we should have gone to the Moon or Mars. Each comment gets more aggressive.
4.) Someone with practical, real-world experience enters the thread 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 with more-or-less different people.
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 cowering back into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with a supposedly dangerous vehicle that “killed 14 people”. This is often 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 two hours from Kennedy Space Center. I was not starved of Apollo growing up, however. I almost 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, and watching on NASA TV. I got to see almost half the US modules of the ISS being prepared in the 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; and by dismissing the subjects of those experiences, the credibility and honor of a whole generation flies out the airlock, and young people are turned off the idea of Space exploration because they will believe the 30-year 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 my generation. In my experience, young people know the name Elon Musk, but far less of us know what he does than one may believe, even this close to Space Coast. My friends, colleagues, and I frequently encounter people who think all spaceflight ended with the Shuttle. Elon Musk still has yet to represent the entire Space effort like the Shuttle has in this generation's mind.
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 now-pointless details that take a comments section war towards migraine territory.
Exploration. What is it? Exploration has traditionally meant human beings visiting a place that no one from their civilization had been. Arguably, the most commonly discussed exploration in human history 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 that 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 a spherical object. Technological and scientific advancements in the past two centuries have expanded humanity’s “world” beyond physical places where we can walk and claim land. Our “world” now includes environments that humans cannot survive in, or see unaided, without tools. 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 (radio, etc) has created a new plane of communication; and (drum-roll) the invention of orbital spacecraft/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 Earth’s atmosphere. This includes the assembly of a football-pitch sized, orbital science laboratory that has been continuously inhabited by a peaceful international community for 17 years. 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 seminal discoveries in human spaceflight. Shuttle’s relatively large crew compartment allowed for NASA to train and fly professional scientists and civilians, instead of almost-exclusively test pilots like pre-Shuttle programs. It opened the door in the United States and Europe for the study of long-term effects of Space on the human body. By delivering (and subsequently repairing) Hubble, 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 today 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 more traditional capsule-style, 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 under NASA receiving 4% of the federal budget at its peak in the 1960s. 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, the Shuttle’s SRBs and Orbiter, though reusable, ended up being more expensive than previously estimated. However, NASA was able to sell the Shuttle to the budget-makers for over 30 years based on this reusable nature, paired with a more diverse range of capabilities. Having a payload bay with advanced equipment such as the Canadarm allowed contractors like the US military, 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 Capsule spacecraft, which would require EVAs, some sort of tool compartment, and, presumably, none of these vehicle could be reused. However, we’re getting into migraine territory with the 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 (Borenstein). This launched 135 missions and 852 passengers (NASA). The US Government placed the Apollo program’s total cost at $25.4 Billion in 1973, or $142 Billion in 2017 dollars (United States). This launched 11 missions and 33 passengers (not including the cancelled Apollos 18-20). Therefore, Apollo's per mission cost was approximately $12.9 Billion. By comparison, the Shuttle's per mission cost was $1.63 Billion. Both of these figures include the initial development of the vehicles. 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, even after taking into account the infrastructure built for Apollo and shared by the Shuttle.
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 near-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 our 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 good case. However, 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 (and contractors) 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. However, Apollo only flew 11 missions. Soyuz is a more comparable vehicle for the Shuttle. Of the 133 completed Soyuz missions, 2 have been lost in flight, placing the current odds of losing a crew at 1:67. The Shuttle, coincidentally, is almost the same, with 135 flights and 2 losses, putting those odds 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 737-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 that 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. It's 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’s legacy is being questioned, and I feel a duty to protect its integrity.
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 fact is, 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, not 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." NBCNews.com. July 05, 2011. Accessed January 09, 2018. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43631772/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/shuttle-cost-more-aig-bailout-less-war/.
NASA. Kennedy Space Center. "Space Shuttle Era Facts." News release, 2012. Space Shuttle and Space Station Program Fact Sheets. Accessed January 9, 2018. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/566250main_SHUTTLE%20ERA%20FACTS_040412.pdf. (FS-2012-04-069-KSC)
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.