Yesterday morning, I woke up to bad news, I could tell from the tone of Scott Simon’s voice on Weekend Edition. I didn’t know what it was, but I quickly learned that the space shuttle had broken up on re-entry.
It saddened me to hear, but somehow, I couldn’t really get very worked up about it. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of the news media. They did their best, first talking about the danger of the hydrazine fuel the shuttle carried, then showing pictures of the breakup and the wreckage, before lapsing into endless repetitions of video from just a few days earlier of the dead astronauts expressing the optimism about the prospects for the mission and its progress.
For all their effort, the main result was to drive me to turn off the tv in disgust. I’d already figured out what I found tragic about the shuttle, and the media wasn’t coming close: These people had probably died in vain.
They had taken significant risks to execute a scientific mission, and when the shuttle broke up, the results of all those experiments were probably lost. But, more than that, the whole shuttle program in the early 21th century seems to be in vain.
I was once quite enamored of the shuttle. I remember staying up all night to see the first launch, only to see it delayed. I went to 6th grade that morning and I was so emotionally ragged I promptly got into a fight.
Since then, I’ve learned more. I have learned what a bonndoggle the shuttle was to begin with, and what a joke it is now.
The shuttle is an expensive outmoded piece of shit. The original design assumptions were already in question before the first launch, and in time they clearly prooved to be false. It didn’t make spaceflight cheap, it made it expensive.
The shuttle was supposed to be reusable, but it isn’t durrable enough to be reused without significant inspection and repair between each flight. This makes each flight expensive. Which means there aren’t many flights, which means that there is never the opportunity for economies of scale.
The shuttle is supposed to be reusable, which means that a significant amount of the payload of every flight is consumed by the weight of the shuttle itself. So, we spend a lot of money on fuel just to send something up that we are going to have to spend a lot of money fixing when it comes back down.
The shuttle is supposed to be reusable, therefore, we aren’t building any more of them, so we have little opportunity to to make improvements to the design that might bring the costs down.
The shuttle is supposed to be reusable, so we put all our space flight money into reusing them, rather than into designing and building truly inexpensive launch vehicles (reusable or not).
The shuttle is supposed to be reusable, so we keep re-using them, even as we should be abandoning them, and people die in vain as a result.
Its a good time to take stock and figure out the future of the space program, rather than plodding along in the past.