Monday, March 9, 2015

The Space Shuttle was a "Failed Success".

The Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center
Few things in this world match NASA's space shuttle as an example of mankind's engineering prowess.  This technological marvel defined the majority of America's space program for well over 30 years.  Without it, one doubts if we would have seen those fantastic images from the Hubble space telescope.  Were it not for the space shuttle, the International Space Station (ISS) would have turned out a whole lot different.

The shuttle itself is awe-inspiring to behold.  Roughly the size of a Boeing 737, the orbiter dwarfs every other manned spacecraft that preceded it.  Stacked with its external fuel tank and solid-rocket boosters, the entire Space Transportation System (STS) is over 15 stories high and weighs 4.5 million pounds.  It is substantially taller than any building in PEI.

The space shuttle's size is not its most impressive feat, however.  Prior to the Columbia's first spaceflight, all spacecraft were basically disposable.  Only the crew capsule survived touchdown, and once it did, it was only suitable for a museum display.  The space shuttle changed all that, however.  Not only is the manned orbiter reused, but so are the solid rocket boosters.  Only the fuel tank is discarded (although there were studies to repurpose them).

The Discovery, the most-flown spacecraft in history, flew a total of 39 missions, clocking in at over a year in orbit.  It flew almost 150 million miles, about the same distance from the earth to the sun.

Without a doubt, the space shuttle is impressive.  In fact, some have already deemed its replacement as a step backward.

The cold hard truth is:  The space shuttle was a spectacularly executed mistake.

Space Shuttle Discovery
The original intent of the space shuttle program was to provide a capable, low-cost vessel that could deliver payloads into orbit as well as return them back to earth.  Costs would be contained by making much of the spacecraft reusable.  It was envisioned to make manned space flight into low earth orbit (LEO) routine.

The original concept behind the shuttle was to provide near-weekly missions into space at a cost of roughly $10.5 million per launch.  Instead, each launch would cost about $1.5 billion.  Over 30 years, only 135 missions were launched, instead of 1,500.

The shuttle itself did not operate completely as envisioned.  Despite being built around a huge cargo bay, it was not usually the cheapest way to get a satellite in orbit.  It also never brought one back.  In essence, the space shuttle was a cargo truck that would go one way with a full load, then return with an empty trailer...  From space.

On top of being extremely expensive and impractical, the space shuttle happens to be the most dangerous spacecraft ever flown.  Before the Challenger disaster, only three American astronauts lost their lives during a ground test.  Neither the Mercury nor the Gemini program had a fatality.  Russia's Soyuz has seen four fatalities.  By contrast, fourteen astronauts have lost their lives aboard the space shuttle.  Flying in the space shuttle has a mortality rate of 4%.

In the end, the space shuttle did not deliver on its original promise to make manned spaceflight a safe,  affordable, and routine practice.  Instead, it continuously bled NASA's coffers dry putting people into low earth orbit.  Going to mars, or even back to the moon, would have to wait.

Apollo 13 is deemed a "Successful Failure" because it did not accomplish its intended mission (landing on the moon), but it did manage to return its crew home safely.

In this context, the space shuttle program should be deemed as a "Failed Success".  It succeeded in it mission to provide a reusable spacecraft, but little else.  Yet for some reason, NASA and the U.S. Government were adamant on keeping the program running, despite being called a "mistake" and a "dud".

Horrendously overbudget, failure to meet its initial goals, and risky...  Yet it kept going on.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Another technological marvel...
For all its criticisms, no one can deny the fact that the JSF is an amazing piece of engineering.  It is the first production aircraft with a STOVL variant.  The first STOVL capable of supersonic flight.  The first stealth aircraft to be built in the thousands.  The HMD.  The list can go on and on...

The JSF program has been riddled with problems, however.  At this point, its initial goal (to provide a common, affordable, and versatile stealth fighter) seems pretty much unachievable.  Instead of improving on its predecessors, it falls short in many ways...  But at a much higher price.

Like the space shuttle, the F-35 is at risk of becoming a white elephant:  A possession in which the usefulness is far outweighed by the cost.  The engineering is indeed remarkable, but does that excuse if for failing to meet its original goals?

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