This is a week of space anniversaries. Yesterday was forty-one years since the Apollo fire that killed three astronauts on the launch pad as horrified technicians watched during a ground test. Thursday will be the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the first US satellite, Explorer I. Friday will be five years since the Columbia disintegrated over the otherwise quiet morning skies of Texas.
But today is the twenty-second anniversary of the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an event that traumatized the nation as millions of schoolchildren watched the first “teacher in space” go up in a fireball on live television. I’ll never forget the date because it was then (as it remains) coincident with the anniversary of my birth.
It wasn’t obvious to many at the time, but that event was the beginning of the end of the Space Shuttle program, then less than five years old, with its first flight having occurred on April 12th, 1981. Prior to that flight, there had still been plans (that some thought fantasies, due to budget restrictions and ongoing problems of turnaround time) of twenty-four flights a year (including a couple per year out of Vandenberg AFB in California). The catastrophe was a splash of cold water in the face of those who had held out hopes for the Shuttle in terms of meeting its original promises of routine, affordable, safe access to orbit. Those promises had caused people (like those in the L5 Society) to dream of space stations, and space manufacturing, and ultimately, space colonies.
After the disaster, many realized that if those dreams were to come true, they would have to be by some means other than the Shuttle (a realization that some later took one step further and decided that NASA itself was unlikely to be of much help in achieving the goals, particularly since it continued to flout the law, and had no interest in them whatsoever). But the program went on, because it was all NASA had for manned spaceflight, and it maintained jobs in the districts of politically powerful congressmen and senators. Though there had been disillusionment about the promise of the program, there was no political will to replace it. The few (misguided) attempts (NASP, X-33, SLI, OSP) to replace it all floundered or failed. The latter two morphed from one to the other. The program thus struggled along with four orbiters, and a low flight rate, with occasional fleet stand downs due to endemic problems, such as hydrogen leaks at the interface, or other concerns.
But the final blow was struck five years ago this coming Friday, with the loss of Columbia. The fleet was down to three birds, and unlike the case after the loss of Challenger, no structural spares had been procured with which to build a new one, and the tooling for them had long since been scrapped. So the decision was finally made, almost seventeen years after the loss of the first orbiter, to end the program.
Unfortunately, what is planned to replace it, Ares 1/Orion, will be little improvement, and in some ways a major step backwards. It will launch even fewer crew than Shuttle, and while the Shuttle was a heavy-lift vehicle capable of delivering twenty tons to the space station, the new system will deliver little payload other than crew. It will have minimal ability to return payloads and no ability to return the types of payloads that the Shuttle could. It will likely cost as much or more per launch, particularly when having to amortize the development costs, which had been long sunk for the Shuttle, and it’s unlikely to launch much, if any, more often. We will go from a system that could deliver a few government employees (along with a couple dozen tons of paylad) into space a few times a year, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per flight to a system that can deliver fewer government employees (with essentially no paylad) into space a few times a year, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per flight. The only saving grace is that, in theory, it can also deliver people to the moon, and it may be somewhat safer.
But the Shuttle started out with a dream: of dozens of flights per year, of low costs per flight, of many flights for many purposes, some of which would be privately funded for private purposes. In canceling most launch vehicle technology development, and returning to a horrifically expensive concept from the 1960s, NASA has in essence officially declared that dream dead.
Fortunately, investors don’t take NASA as seriously as they used to, and the dream now lives on in the form of new private companies, determined to open up the heavens to all of us, and not just a few civil servants. If we hadn’t lost the Challenger over two decades ago, the Columbia loss might have been seen as an anomaly in an otherwise-successful program. As in 1986, it might have simply been replaced (albeit at great expense) with the structural spares that were earlier used to build Endeavor, and the program might still be lumbering on, keeping us trapped in low earth orbit, and continuing to crush the dreams of those who believe that we can do better. If that loss back then was a necessary catalyst to ultimately end the program and spur on efforts to do better privately, even if delayed, then perhaps the sacrifice of the Challenger crew will, in the long run of history, be viewed as not for naught.