What's the News: With NASA's last shuttle launch slated for July 8, the news is filled with retrospectives on the shuttle program. And a few of them make this shrewd point: even though the US has no replacement program, even though the vehicles allowed the construction of the International Space Station...good riddance. What's the Context:
The shuttle program was launched in 1972 by Richard Nixon, with the goal of a new system of affordable space travel.
Over the last four decades, shuttles carried astronauts into low orbit, allowing them to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, ferry parts to build the International Space Station, and perform experiments in the ISS's labs.
For more on the costs and benefits of spaceflight, check out the Bad Astronomer's recent article on the shuttle and his handy spaceflight linkfest. For a great visual look at the program's history, including the tragedies of the Challenger in 1986, when the shuttle disintegrated after launch, and the Columbia in 2003, when it fell apart upon re-entry, see Scientific American's infographic.
Why the Shuttle was Flawed:
The goal of the shuttle program was to make space travel easy, standardized, and affordable. But it failed spectacularly on those counts, John Logsdon, former head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told AFP: "The highlight of the shuttle program was demonstrating the ability of astronauts to do useful things in space. The real failure of the shuttle was to live up to its original promises of being affordable and routine."
In terms of its safety, the design of the shuttle was a classic failure of "design by committee," writes veteran space reporter Dennis Overbye of the NYTimes, and though it was declared operational after four years, the shuttle could never have been flown regularly:
The shuttle’s design had been compromised by politics and economics — a more expensive and safer version would have put the crew far above, as on the towering Moon rockets, rather than surrounded by booster rockets and a giant fuel tank in the clunky arrangement that prevailed — and NASA’s managers were drinking their own Kool-Aid.
As for affordability, the shuttle program cost a whopping $209.1 billion, twenty times more than anticipated. That's because the antiquated shuttle, which should have been retired after 10-15 years, ran more than 30, in part because that particular design was required for the construction of the space station. Logsdon, in an article at Technology Review, draws a direct connection between the ravenous shuttle budget and the lack of other large advances in manned space flight:
By operating the system for 30 years, with its high costs and high risk, rather than replacing it with a less expensive, less risky second-generation system, NASA compounded the original mistake of developing the most ambitious version of the vehicle. The shuttle's cost has been an obstacle to NASA starting other major projects.
Although it certainly had positive aspects---it carried satellites to orbit, pioneered international cooperation in space, allowed scientists to experiment in space, and was of course an icon of spaceflight---whether the shuttle will ultimately be considered a successful depends on whether the space station produces extraordinary benefits, he concludes, and that reckoning is years off.
Why This Matters For the Future:
The shuttle may be going into retirement, but NASA still has dreams of spaceflight: the current idea is that it will somehow construct a heavy lift launch vehicle to heave ships into low orbit.
The heavy lift launch vehicle's goals aren't at all clear, and to many, it has the air of a compromise. NASA is in danger of letting politics again control its trajectory, a mistake that crippled the shuttle program, Logsdon warns:
I have previously written that it was a policy mistake to choose the space shuttle as the centerpiece of the nation's post-Apollo space effort without agreeing on its goals. Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.
Image credit: deg.io / flickr