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Fooling nature

The Space Shuttle is no more: but the dream of manned spaceflight goes on.
Alex Webster
7 August 2011

On July 8, 2011 the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched into space from the Kennedy Space Centre for the final time, embarking on a final twelve day mission and ending the Space Shuttle programme. For just over thirty years, the programme has helped man skim the waters of the cosmic ocean, ever since Space Shuttle Columbia, captained by moonwalker John Young, made its first manned flight on April 12, 1981, ushering in momentous events in manned space exploration.

The Shuttle proved vital in the launch and repair of the Hubble Space telescope, giving humanity its clearest glimpse into the heavens. The Shuttle was at the heart of US-Russian space cooperation in the aftermath of the cold war, when presidents Yeltsin and Bush Snr. agreed upon a joint programme enabling American Shuttles to dock with the aging Russian space station Mir. Without the Shuttle, it is difficult to conceive of how the Earth’s sole inhabitable satellite today, the sprawling International Space Station, could have been constructed.

In spite of these achievements, it has not been without controversy, with many believing the initial commissioning by President Nixon was little more than a cynical ploy to garner votes rather than a move to advance manned exploration of space. Following the moon landings in 1969, the administration was faced with four major options for the continuation of manned spaceflight; a follow-on lunar programme, a manned mission to Mars, a low-orbit infrastructural programme and the discontinuation of manned space activities. Three years later, in 1972 (an election year) Nixon announced the space Shuttle programme. The programme was forecast to create 50,000 jobs in Texas and California, two states that were vital for Nixon to secure if he was to survive the coming presidential election, bogged down as he was by the fighting in Vietnam. In addition, the US aerospace industry was in particular disarray in the early 1970s, facing declines in commercial and military procurement as well as aggressive competition from Europe, such as the Anglo-French development of Concorde. Nixon had to act. Of all the options, Nixon went with the Shuttle, the programme which would create the most jobs for the lowest cost.

The idea of a spacecraft returning to earth and landing like a conventional aircraft had been around since the very earliest days of the American space programme in the mid 1950s. The idea was subsequently tested during the era of the US Air Force’s top secret programmed of “X” planes, which flew to the very edge of space before gliding to land in the desert air bases of California and New Mexico. The space Shuttle was also designed to provide NASA with a new capability: reusable spacecraft. Up until then, all spacecraft would be used only the once, and then scrapped. To make a comparison, this is like constructing a Boeing 747, flying it from London to New York and then throwing it away. The vast majority of such waste occurred within minutes of launch, as the multiple stage rockets were shed, only to burn up in the atmosphere (or settle into orbit – contributing to the considerable tonnage of space junk surrounding the Earth today).

Shuttle also provided NASA with the attractive option of larger crews (up to eight). Before Shuttle, NASA crews usually consisted of two or three man teams crammed into a space capsule. The crews, still mostly recruited back in the 1960s were often military pilots trained as astronauts in the gruelling yet jocular struggle to ascertain which of them had “The Right Stuff”. With larger crews, NASA now had the ability to populate her crews with scientists, medical doctors and perhaps even untrained civilians, as Nixon envisaged, bringing space travel to the masses. With its large payload, it was also conceived as a potential orbital platform for spacecraft construction.  In short, it was believed that the space Shuttle would usher in a New Era of space exploration and pride in technology, reversing the dreaded slip into hippie counterculture which Nixon saw in America’s path.

The Russians also got involved in their own Shuttle programme, Buran (Snowstorm), the largest and most expensive Soviet space programme. Buran made only one, unmanned, mission in 1988, launching into space, orbiting the earth and landing safely. In spite of this, the spacecraft never flew again, in part due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal opposition to the programme. Such an expensive and complex programme could never, in any case, survive the economic and political chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union and was eventually cancelled in 1993. Any hope of resurrection was put to rest in 2002 when the decrepit hangar housing Buran collapsed, killing seven workers and destroying the spacecraft. The pictures that remain of Buran look like an exotic, askew version of the Shuttle. Sleeker and more angular than her American counterpart, with fuel tanks and rockets glowing a brilliant white, illuminated by the explosive fires of its launch, glowing against misty black of the Kazakh night sky.

Nor has the space Shuttle programme been without its tragedies. In 1986, the space Shuttle challenger exploded on take off due to a faulty seal, instantly killing her seven crewmembers. The disaster would be repeated in 2003 with the Shuttle Columbia, only this time on re-entry, when the Shuttle disintegrated, scattering debris, including the remains of her crew across hundreds of square miles of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. NASA was aware of the high possibility of fatal accidents from the beginning. The failure rate was initially calculated at 1.5%, which may seem small, but will eventually result in some kind of accident once in every 75 missions. When dealing with the unforgiving environment of space and the infernal heated pressures of launch and re-entry, even the slightest mechanical failure will lead to disaster, as happened with the two doomed Shuttles. In all, Shuttle has killed more astronauts (14) than all the other space vehicles in the world put together (4) and having lost two out of its five vehicles it possesses an unenviable 40% attrition rate.

Part of the problem was the fundamentals of the space Shuttle design. With the Shuttle sitting astride the launch vehicle, rather than on top as previous capsules did, it was in danger of being hit with falling debris from its rockets upon launch, just as happened in 2003 with the Columbia disaster. From the start, it was also compromised by political interference in its design. NASA was locked in a vicious battle with the Office of Management and Budget over funding for the programme in the early 1970s. By opting for the cheapest design possible, NASA ultimately sacrificed many of the potential benefits of the Shuttle programme. The solid fuel rocket boosters were chosen over their liquid fuel counterparts, even though the liquid fuel boosters were projected to provide better performance and ultimately lower costs, simply because the solid booster developmental costs were cheaper. The shuttle also proved incapable of acting as the universal carrier for all US space payloads, both military and civilian, a task on which it was specifically sold to Congress in the first place. The shuttle was also notoriously sensitive, with upkeep and maintenance costing billions, still resulting in major accidents. 

The Shuttle programme was initially scheduled to cost $50 million per launch (around $250 million today). The final cost per launch of the Shuttle programme has been recently calculated as closer to $2 billion per flight (in today’s money). Aside from immense budgetary problems caused by an initial lack of investment, the space Shuttle was dogged by political interference from the beginning. The investigation into the Challenger disaster chaired by notable physicist Richard Feynman was sharply critical of the Reagan administration’s push for frequent launches at the expense of thorough preparation, for reasons of national prestige. Feynman also noted how a fundamental discord between senior management and NASA engineers had developed during the Shuttle years, with even senior NASA managers misunderstanding elementary concepts related to space travel. Feynman did not hold back on his criticism of the way politics had interfered with science, concluding “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” 

A further problem with Shuttle’s inordinately high operating costs is that it has totally curtailed any additional NASA manned space programmes during its operation. It may still surprise a few casual observers no human has ever gone further than the Apollo astronauts, the only men to see the circumference of the Earth in its entirety. The tightening of NASA’s budget due to the Shuttle has also limited NASA’s robotic space programme, the successes of which have happened in spite of, rather than because of the Space Shuttle.

Some within NASA, such as Michael Griffin (administrator from 2005 to 2009) have even argued that had NASA continued with the Saturn rockets of the Apollo years, NASA could have matched the Shuttle launch rate of six missions a year (including multiple lunar missions) for the same cost. Perhaps even Mars missions could have been achieved in the same timescale and price range.

Renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan described the Space Shuttle as a “capability without a mission.” Sagan was immensely critical of how the Shuttle programme was essentially dabbling in low Earth orbit, rather than an advance on the developments of the 1960s, which could presumably result in a mission to Mars and beyond. The only real progress that NASA has made in the late twentieth century has been in its robotic exploration programme, partly because these missions have tangible goals, acting as a spur to the development of new technologies. Unfortunately, due to the unmanned nature of these missions, they will never be able enthuse the public the way that manned exploration does.

So, what next for manned space exploration? The Chinese threw their hat in the ring in 2003, sending a man into orbit, and have been slowly leaking their plans for a manned space station and eventually a manned lunar mission. The Indians are not far behind in their plans to send a man into space and even the Iranians have also announced their intention to send a man into orbit. However, at the moment the only way into space is aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. The Soyuz programme, begun in the 1960s and constantly refined has survived the Space Shuttle and will force NASA astronauts to hitch a ride into Space until the new Constellation programme provides them with a rocket ready for launch. A timetable for this is uncertain, as president Obama refused to include this programme in the 2011 federal budget.

Since Shuttle began, the world has also seen the advent of commercial space travel. What began with a select group of billionaires paying the Russians to send them into space has now bloomed into a potential multi-billion dollar industry. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is leading the way, and should be conducting regular flights from 2012 at the cost of a bargain £200,000 a seat. Virgin Galactic is scheduled to be the first of many companies ready and able to offer manned spaceflight in the coming decades. Private companies are not only active in space tourism, but also deeply involved in research and development of new space technologies, ranging from space planes to lunar greenhouses.

There is a more fundamental challenge facing spaceflight, however, one that has become particularly acute in the last couple of years, and that is its absolutely monumental cost. The Shuttle programme was described as “the most efficient method of destroying American dollar bills as has ever been devised by man” by US Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and he had a point. Part of the problem is the simple issue of getting into space in the first place. Many scientists are coming around to the view that sitting atop a rocket and smashing one’s craft against the Earth’s gravitational pull is simply too expensive, too dangerous and too primitive. Other options considered include a resurrection of the space plane, currently being pioneered in an unmanned form by the US Air Force’s X-37 and serving as the basis for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne. One of the most Cutting Edge designs is that of Skylon, developed by a British consortium over the past thirty years. Skylon plans to use jet engines to soar up to the edge of space, before switching to rocket fuel to push it into orbit, only for it to land conventionally, as the Space Shuttle did. Her designers hope for her to carry payloads of up to fifteen tonnes, or thirty astronauts.

There are more outlandish (yet theoretically possible) ideas still. One of the more exciting plans is that of a Space Elevator. The plan involves the tethering of a satellite in geo-synchronous orbit to a station on Earth, perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres below. Rolling up a tether made of carbon nanotubes (the only material strong enough for the job), the elevator could slash the per kilo costs of getting matter into orbit by a magnitude of ten or even a hundred times. The potential applications are stunning; space stations, orbital construction platforms, space hotels and a useful platform from which to launch manned missions to the other celestial bodies of the solar system, not to mention the glorious view passengers would be afforded as they rose up above the clouds and soared up to the heavens. In time, perhaps the only obstacle to space travel for the average citizen of the world would be the immense waiting list for a seat that would inevitably arise.

Returning to earth, it is clear that the Space Shuttle has contributed greatly to man’s understanding of space. However, after the advances made in the 1960s, it is difficult to deny that Shuttle has failed to excite the imagination of the public at large or even experienced cosmologists the way Apollo did. For the past three decades, man’s ventures in space have consisted of little more than launching up into space, orbiting for a few days, before heading back down again. Since the goals have never been too ambitious, the development of new space technologies has slowed somewhat, and the political will simply does not exist to push the boundaries of human exploration back further. Now that the space race is over, and the US is no longer interested in competing with the Russians up there, mankind must either wait for the emerging economies of the world to assert their national prestige in space, or wait for progress to be driven by the search for profits. 

However, there can be no doubt that the prospect of space travel excites curious minds, young and old, across the world like no other. As long as there is human civilisation, there will be no shortage of ideas, dreams and plans to take us into space. Some will be scrawled on the back of school books and some will be developed in billion-dollar research facilities. In the words of the most eloquent exponent of manned space exploration, Carl Sagan, “The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean, recently we’ve waded a little way out, about ankle deep, and the water seems inviting…”

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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