Lost in Space
In my last post I extolled the positive aspects of the US space program and space exploration in general. Today, just to play the devil’s advocate, and to be true to Doug’s Darkworld form, a less flattering look at the US space program. A long time reader sent me a Tom Wolfe editorial about the space race. Basically Mr Wolfe points out that after the race to the Moon was won, NASA almost immediately began to downsize. Their budget was cut by Congress in the years to follow., and the US space program wilted on the vine. I maintain the esteemed Mr Wolfe’s take on the situation is optimistic. Not only did the USA cut funding for space exploration after the Moon shots, most of what money we did spend was horribly, tragically, wastefully, misspent.
Let me explain. The Apollo program was humanity at its best. The USA managed to put a man on the Moon (many men in fact) with modest loss of life using technology that was barely adequate to the task. Unfortunately, not a whole lot of science was done during the Apollo missions. Some, especially the later Apollo missions, but it was mostly tacked on, the main focus was simply getting people to the Moon. So, as Tom Wolfe says, after this great start, why didn’t the human exploration of space continue? Very simply put, they intended to, but in true American fashion, they decided to go for broke. Yes, I am talking about the Space Shuttle. Most people think, if they think about it at all, that the Space Shuttle was the next logical step in space exploration. No, actually, it wasn’t. The Space Shuttle was a very deliberate effort to skip several decades of research and build a 21st century space vehicle in the 1970s. If it had worked, it would have put the USA in an unassailable lead in space exploration, leaving the Russians and everyone else in the dust.
They key phrase here is “if it worked.” The people promoting the shuttle used the most optimistic numbers possible to justify and sell the shuttle. They essentially touted it as a space airliner that would make trips to space routine, cheap, and safe. It was an exciting concept. And yes, if the Wright brothers had decided their second plane would be a DC-3, that would have been exciting too. The Wright brothers knew better, and NASA should have too. It’s not that there weren’t some very smart people standing around saying, “Um, have we thought this through?”
They hadn’t, and the results were all too predictable. The Space Shuttle sucked up the lion’s share of NASAs budget for decades, and only delivered about 10% of its promised capabilities. It’s incredibly expensive to operate, and only goes up half a dozen times a year, instead of the 50-100 yearly trips that we so confidently predicted. And as far as being safe, NASA hit .000 on that one. Half the shuttle fleet has blown up so far, it averages one passenger death every eight trips. It’s basically the most dangerous passenger vehicle ever put into production. Wildly over-budget, couldn’t perform even half of what it was supposed to do, and incredibly dangerous to boot. If that’s not failure, I don’t know what is.
Meanwhile every other aspect of the USA space program languished for lack of funds. Manned exploration, deep space exploration, and booster technology all got short shrift. And the rest of the world worked hard to catch up, the Russians for example got far more done in near Earth orbit than the USA. They showed for example that you don’t need a space shuttle to supply and man a space station, probably the number one “purpose” the shuttle was sold for. And the Challenger explosion put an end to using the shuttle to launch satellites or carry hordes of passengers to space.
In fact, by any logic, the shuttle program should have been cancelled then and there. As most readers know, logic plays little or no role in America’s national priorities, and like a bad poker player we simply kept pouring more money into a failed program in a quixotic attempt to make it work. Then the Columbia blew up and that was that. The Space Shuttle program was dead, all that remained was to bury the corpse. Even then we still couldn’t admit outright failure, and the remaining shuttles kept flying while we worked out what to do next.
And what was that? The Orion, the “next generation” in manned space vehicles. It’s pictured above, remind you of anything? It should, it looks remarkably like the Apollo capsule that preceded the space shuttle. That’s right, NASA’s successor to the Space Shuttle is simply a souped up Apollo … something NASA could have done in the 70s if they hadn’t tried to leapfrog a few decades of space exploration technology. I mean, the proof is in the pudding, if the Space Shuttle had been a success, we’d be building an upgraded shuttle, not returning to the 1960s. Frankly the best thing I can say about the space shuttle program is that it’s over, and the manned exploration of space can pick up where we left off in the 70s.
In any event, I’m talking about politics and bureaucracy, no disrespect intended for the fine scientists, engineers, and astronauts who have devoted their careers, and sometimes their lives, to the exploration of space and the advancement of human knowledge thereof.
(The above image came from this page and is used accordingly: “I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby grant the permission to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.” It’s a mock-up of the new Orion capsule. No, the bird on top is not part of the capsule. And finally, for those who haven’t heard it before: NASA and the Navajo.)