Why the Space Shuttle, aka the "Flying Brickyard," Deserves to be Retired

By Veronique Greenwood | July 6, 2011 1:13 pm


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:

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

  • Wil

    A primary rule is that politics will dominate anything that the government funds, even partially. NASA is no exception to this.

    That the Space Shuttles had design flaws means that they exist in the real world – every object that has ever been designed and built is imperfect and contains many design flaws. By itself, that is no reason to think that they should never have been started, or that they should be eliminated once they exist.

    One must be careful not to have standards so high that they are literally impossible to achieve in the real world. It is not perfect, but the Shuttle program is the best thing of its kind that any nation has been able to make, and it is the best thing of its kind in all human history (so far).

  • Paul

    The shuttle program was a waste of money, and even worse a horrendous waste of time and attention. The country would have been much better off had it been killed and manned spaceflight had gone on hiatus for a couple of decades. Had this happened, the US would not have lost its lead in expendable launchers to Ariane, and arguably something like Space X’s Falcon (which is basically the old idea of a cost rather than performance optimized booster) could have happened decades earlier.

    In the case of the shuttle, there was every reason to think it should never have been started. It was simply too large a step, into too small a market. NASA had to make up fantasy projections of demand to make the business case close. In the end, the shuttle ended up being an even bigger programmatic disaster than the critics of the early 1970s feared — even they didn’t realize how high the operating costs and low the flight rate would be.

    It is not setting too high a standard to judge a program by the reasons that were given for its initiation. The rationale for the shuttle was to reduce the cost of reaching orbit. It failed to do this, and missed its costs projections by more than an order of magnitude. It requires far more special pleading than anyone should tolerate to call a miss of that magnitude anything other than failure.

  • Brian Too

    You learn more from your failures than your successes. The shuttle program may have been necessary for no other reason, than to learn the lessons of what not to do with future designs.

  • Brian Too

    Test test.

  • Monkey

    one, two, three…

  • Chris Winter

    Wil wrote: “That the Space Shuttles had design flaws means that they exist in the real world…”

    Certainly most, if not all, manufactured objects contain design flaws. That does not necessarily mean they will fail to meet their objectives. Even if they do fail to meet their objectives, it does not necessarily mean that they should never have been manufactured.

    In the case of the Space Shuttle, many of its defects were in effect mandated by skimping on its development funding. (IIRC, $12 billion was requested; $5 billion was given.) But even then, it could have been operated without losing two orbiters and their crews. Those failures were due to shortcomings of NASA’s management process. Books have been written about them.

    At this juncture, our best option would be for NASA to foster the continued development of a commercial launch industry (including the six or so “NewSpace” companies) while it devotes itself to research — as in the old NACA model. However, congressional politics being what they are, I do not expect this outcome any time soon.

  • Chas

    What is holding up the deployment of a space elevator, anchored by an orbiting dock, capable of lifting payloads into orbit and costing a fraction of a heavy launch vehicle? And championed by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke…

  • Brian

    Wouldn’t the ozone destroy any cables, etc that are used to connect the orbiting dock with the launchpad?

  • Paul

    Chas: lack of material that is strong enough on the scales required, and the concern that orbital debris would sever the elevator even if it could be built.

    More generally, the demand for transport into space is currently too small to justify building such an object. This is generic problem with many proposed launch systems (and it was a problem with the shuttle).

    Realize also that an elevator capsule on a space elevator still needs rockets (with about 5km/s worth of delta-V), so that the passengers could survive if the capsule falls off of the cable breaks. There is a range of altitudes over which a unpowered capsule would reenter the atmiosphere too fast and too steeply for the passengers to survive the deceleration.

  • spiridonia

    Hey Paul. So you’re say that placing the Hubble telescope in ordit was a “programmatic disaster,” the Chandra x-ray telescope was a “programmatic disaster,” building an International Space Station was a “programmatic disaster.” Is that what you are saying? Ok, so it didn’t “reduce the cost of reaching orbit,” but look at what we’ve gained and what we learned by having the Shuttle.

  • Taikonought

    Just a thought. How about selling the Shuttle lock stock and barrel to the Chinese government? They have the money and currently appear to be the most motivated nation with regards to space programs. Not to say of saving the jobs of those guys and gals working on the program. Expertise with hands on experience like that going into retirement is just such a waste.

  • Paul

    Spiridonia: none of those satellites would have required the shuttle.

    The HST, which made the most use of the shuttle’s capabilities, cannot save the shuttle program from condemnation. If there had been no shuttle, but we had really wanted a space telescope, then HST-like satellites could have been orbited by expendable rockets. We could not have repaired them in space, but the cost of manufacturing a series of them (amortizing the engnineering cost over several satellites) would have been less than the cost of the shuttle repair missions.

    Chandra and CGRO were launched on the shuttle, but there is no reason they couldn’t have been launched on expendables. And the fourth “great observatory”, the Spitzer IR telescope, was shifted to an expendable launcher.

    One could argue that, absent a shuttle, these satellites would not have been funded. But that would say something about their preceived value, wouldn’t it?

    Taikonought: what makes you think they’d want to buy it? If China wants to get anything from us, it’s SpaceX’s aggressively lean booster making capability.

  • Al Cibiades

    >>Paul –
    20/20 hindsight is a waste of time & air — Unless you can implement positive changes.

    Bottom-line: HST, ISS, Chandra, CGRO, and the general Space Excitement *WERE* launched through the shuttle program; to belittle their value by replacing the launch mechanism is also foolish.

    Like that great philosopher whats-his-name said: You work with what you’ve got; not with what you wish you had.

    In fine, if we had a way to remove incompetent and self-aggrandizing politicians from the matrix of science, industry and politics, I would suggest we actuate it *real* soon…

  • LeapinLes

    Is there a pandemic of ignorance going around?
    The Shuttle program didn’t “fail”. It was neutered, bound, and cutoff
    at the knees, and that was just at the beginning.
    It’s like saying that a thoroughbred trainer failed when all he was
    given to work with is plow horses.

  • Taikonought

    I’m sure the Shuttle program has got some tech that the Chinese space program could use. Would save them time and money re-inventing the wheel (provided of course they haven’t already downloaded all the data from NASA :) )
    I remember watching their first space ‘walk’. The poor guy was trailing all manner of tubes that it reminded me of an octopus squeezing out of a bottle!

    At the very least I think access hatches should be standardized for all spacecraft regardless of nationality. Out there, its either you are an earthing or you are an alien. And in a tight spot, I laying my bet that help will be coming from an earthling.

  • Frank Glover

    “What is holding up the deployment of a space elevator, anchored by an orbiting dock, capable of lifting payloads into orbit and costing a fraction of a heavy launch vehicle? And championed by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke…”

    Oh, nothing but the inability to make many kilotons of the nanotube material required, *and* geting it to Geostationary orbit, from which construction must begin…

    Also, space elevators are of use only for *reaching* geostationary orbit, and not everyone wants or needs to go that high. Step off at LEO (let’s say 200 miles), and you *still* have to develop a lot of horizontal velocity in a hurry.

    And, how fast can you clime this thing? Going to GEO means a slow ride through the VanAllen belts. Rockets doing a high-thrust burn to GEO (or beyond) cut across them in a short time…

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