There has been ample news coverage of the latest Space Shuttle disaster. Two things are clear; NASA will not accept blame for the Columbia disaster and will not even discuss ending the Shuttle program. NASA will blame budget cuts and bad luck, but will never admit the Shuttle is unsafe. The people at NASA are not evil, but are part of what they describe as "the NASA family", which includes contract workers. This family has made a career of the Space Shuttle program and will never admit the Shuttle is too costly because it is too complex and thus too dangerous. Large numbers of Shuttle tiles have fallen off on most missions, but since it had never caused a Shuttle to burn up, they concluded it wasn't critical. If NASA admitted the Shuttle is flawed, the program would end and most of the NASA family may lose their jobs.
This is no secret since this recent New York Times article exposed NASA. Anyone can read through three decades of promised Shuttle performance to realize the program is a failure. Last year, a senior NASA engineer tried to ground the Shuttle program. He was forced to retire, so he sent a letter to President Bush demanding a safety stand-down, which he posted on his website: NASA Problems. NASA had developed a list of expensive upgrades to keep the old Shuttles flying another 20 years. However, space enthusiasts and several knowledgeable Congressmen were already upset that NASA had squandered billions of dollars on the X-33 program and the Space Launch Initiative. Then last November, NASA announced that developing a modern space vehicle was too difficult, so it would keep the costly Space Shuttle program going another twenty years. This prompted irate editorials from G2mil, the Economist, and others, but the general public remained duped.
As a result, NASA was afraid to ask Congress for billions of dollars for safety upgrades for their old Shuttles. Instead, it cut back Shuttle launch plans to squeeze these costly upgrades into annual budgets. However, even though Shuttle tiles have a long history of problems, installing modern metallic thermal protective tiles is considered too expensive. While NASA funding was trimmed a few years ago, Congress never mandated a certain number of Shuttle launches a year, it was NASA who determined how many Shuttles could safely launch. Moreover, no upgrade can fix the Shuttle's complex and dangerous design, which was selected by President Nixon.
Unlike previous NASA space launch efforts, there is nothing evolutionary in the Shuttle program. Each launch repeats the same basic mission where the spacecraft simply circles the globe. The Shuttles do not explore anything, nor do they test anything related to space propulsion. This so well known that during a post-Columbia news conference a reporter sarcastically asked if the data from the flower aroma test had been downloaded from space, or if that data was lost forever.
The NASA family's final argument is their 2% failure rate is the same as today's expendable rocket systems, so we must accept the fact that space flight is unsafe. Mankind will never advance with such pessimism. The early years of aerial flight were also dangerous, but progress was made by adopting newer and better designs. NASA has lost two of five Shuttles in just 113 missions, yet now wants to spend billions of dollars for minor upgrades to continue with three ageing Shuttle orbiters designed in the 1970s. Since the Shuttle is built with unique parts, NASA can only guess how much longer components will last, so its only a matter of time before the next Shuttle fails. This is madness!
NASA should conduct one last shuttle mission this Spring, with just two pilots, to the Space Station to pick up its three-man crew and strip of the Space Station of all valuable components it can carry back. They can inspect the Shuttle orbiter for tile damage from the Station, and if serious damage occurred, they can release it and wait for another Shuttle. The Station has an escape capsule for the crew, but STS-114 is ready and paid for and can recover a billion dollars of Space Station equipment for future use. Then it can boost the Space Station into higher orbit in hopes it will last a few more years until a new modern manned vehicle is ready. Even if the Space Station is eventually lost, it will be no loss, remember "Skylab"?
Scrapping the Shuttle/Space Station efforts will free funds for new and exciting programs during the next decade:
1. Revive the X-33 program which was 80% complete when canceled in 2001. Once problems are solved, it can fly into space, not into orbit, as a demonstrator within four years. (cost ~ four shuttle launches).
2. Fund Sandia National Labs "Super Strypi" project which offers a low-cost and reliable method of rail launch to allow the USA to undercut foreign competition for small commercial payloads. (cost ~ one shuttle launch)
3. Seriously study and test ground-based assisted launch proposals (rocket sled, pneumatic, maglev) and combinations of them. (cost ~ one shuttle launch)
4. Build a "Sky Ramp" demonstrator to ground boost launch the X-33, NASA's planned X-43C hypersonic aircraft, and maybe a ramjet-powered SR-71 fly-back demonstrator. Also evaluate launching Atlas V or Delta IV expendables with a ground boost. (cost ~ four shuttle launches)
5. Fund other promising NASA projects that have been starved for decades as the Shuttle/Station monster devoured NASA funds. (cost ~ annual space station construction cost)
This sudden change will generate great enthusiasm at NASA and the nation as America diverts from the Shuttle/Station dead-end and begins to move ahead. Lessons learned from ground assisted launch, hypersonic flybacks, and the X-33 will eventually allow safe, low-cost manned space flight. Perhaps this will be a two-stage to orbit vehicle with a ramjet powered fly-back booster, a ground boosted RLV with a single expendable booster, or even a ground boosted single-stage-to-orbit "Venturestar". The deaths from the last Shuttle mission will not be in vain if they help America escape the Shuttle/Station quagmire.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com
G2mil editorials may be freely distributed without permission
March 2003 Articles
Letters - comments from G2mil readers
have been returned to the Members Library
LAV III Stryking Out - serious development problems emerge
Aluminum Cased Ammo - cheaper, stronger, and lighter
Officer Intelligence Test - make them take the GMAT
President Bush's FY 2004 Military Budget Proposal - war costs excluded
Is Water Saddam's Secret Weapon? - will the Iraqis blow up dams?
The Chicken Defense - US troops will use chickens to detect deadly chemicals
The Smart Way to Be Scared - ignore federal fear mongering
A War Crime or an Act of War - Hussein never gassed his own people
Spies, Lies, and Iraq - why defectors are rarely trusted
Hawk-Dove Quiz - written by right-wingers
With friends like these... - what allies?
Yellow Times Shut Down - critics silenced
Previous G2mil - February 2003 issue
Past Editorials - by Carlton Meyer
Library Tour - visit G2mil's library
Library Entrance - members only
All material in G2mil Copyright 2003 G2mil, patents pending on some items. Links to www.G2mil.com are encouraged.