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« Shuttle Delenda Est | Main | Send In The Robots »

Hardware Over Humans

Let me preface this post, before I expand on yesterday's apparent political incorrectness, by stating, for the record, that I am not a Vulcan. Nor am I an android. I'm not even a human being whose heart consists of a tiny grain of flinty stone, undetectable except with a scanning tunneling microscope.

I feel for the families and friends of those who lost their lives in yesterday's catastrophe, just as I feel for the family and friends of anyone who suffers such a loss. What I don't feel is a personal loss, as though they were my family or friend. I didn't know them, and neither did ninety nine percent of the American public that now grieves their loss, until yesterday.

I do personally grieve the loss of the space shuttle orbiter Columbia, because I did know it. Very few people saw it both lift off from Florida, on its maiden flight, and land in California, back in May 1981. I'm one of them.

I worked many years for the company that built it. I helped do preliminary planning for some missions for it.

I also grieve its loss as a symbol of what we might be able to accomplish in space, given sensible national space policy (a commodity that continues to remain in short supply).

The crewmembers of that flight were each unique, and utterly irreplaceable to those who knew and loved them, and are devastated by their sudden absence from their lives, and to paraphrase what the president said after September 11, seven worlds were destroyed yesterday.

But, while this may sound callous, the space program will go on just fine without them. They knew their job was hazardous, they did it anyway, and by all accounts, they died doing what they wanted, and loved, to do. There are many more astronauts in the astronaut corps who, if a Shuttle was sitting on the pad tomorrow, fueled and ready to go, would eagerly strap themselves in and go, even with the inquiry still going on, because they know that it's flown over a hundred times without burning up on entry, and they still like the odds. And if yesterday's events made them suddenly timorous, there is a line of a hundred people eagerly waiting to replace each one that would quit, each more than competent and adequate to the task. America, and the idea of America, is an unending cornucopia of astronaut material.

When it comes to space, hardware matters, and currently useful space hardware is a very scarce commodity. People are optional. A Shuttle can get into orbit with no crew aboard. It could return that way as well, with some minor design modifications (actuators for nose-wheel steering and brakes, and gear deployment). But no one gets to space without transportation. Many of us would walk there if we could, but we can't.

Yesterday, we lost a quarter of our Shuttle fleet. The next time we fly, we'll be putting at risk a third of the remainder. If we lose that one, every flight thereafter will be risking half of America's capability to put people into orbit.

So, when I grieve the loss of Columbia, it's not because it was just a symbol. What I truly grieve is the loss of the capability that it not just represented, but possessed. That vehicle will never again deliver a payload or a human to space. It cost billions of dollars to build, and would cost many billions and several years to replace. That was the true loss yesterday, not the crew. I think that people realize this on some level, but feel uncomfortable in articulating it.

But I've always viewed space, and space policy, through a different lens than most people, as anyone who reads this weblog regularly has come to realize.

Why do people so uniquely mourn the loss of astronauts? Before the space program, before Mercury and the Right Stuff, the host of military test pilots that provided that first seven were killed on a regular basis in the exercise of their duties, and their funerals were attended by only family and friends, with little publicity. Something happened in 1960. As Wolfe pointed out, they became the gladiators of our age, in a (hopefully) bloodless competition on the high frontier against our enemy the Soviets. They became a symbol of our technological ability, and in order to win the propaganda battle, they had to leave the planet and return alive. The loss of the vehicles that delivered them to the heavens was insignificant, because they were designed to be thrown away after they served their purpose, once, but if we lost astronauts, it was a sign that we were losing the Cold War.

With the advent of the Shuttle, and even with the end of the Cold War, we retained the same sense that space symbolizes our nation's might and prowess, in a way that an aircraft taking off does not. So, though they've become so seemingly routine that we no longer televise them, our national pride continues to ride with each flight.

But most of us are brought up to believe that "people are more important than things." While true in some abstract philosophical sense, this notion often bumps up against reality--when we decide how strong to build a car door, when we put a dollar amount on the value of a human life for the purpose of determining the cost/benefit of government regulations, etc, but we still believe that there's something unethical or unsavory in valuing inanimate objects, regardless of their ability to provide pleasure, sustenance, or life itself.

So when we are shocked by the loss of something so vital to our national psyche, and so seemingly useful to our ambitions for spaceflight, it is natural to transfer the mourning from the vehicle to its inhabitants.

I don't. I forthrightly state that to me, it was the loss of the vehicle itself that was of the greatest importance, and that we have to build such vehicles to be more reliable, even if they are to never carry crew or passengers, because we cannot afford to lose them. That's why the notion of "man-rating" a reusable launch system, or space transport, is so nonsensical. If it's not reliable enough to operate economically, it's not reliable enough to carry people. The operating economics will be the design driver to reliability, not the payload, regardless of the degree to which it's considered valuable, or even invaluable.

And by that criterion (as well as others), Shuttle has always been a failure, in terms of its ultimate stated program goals of providing affordable, routine, safe access to space. There is plenty of blame to go around for this, but the seeds of that failure were planted in the constrained budget environment of its development thirty years ago, and it's not something that can sensibly be fixed now, regardless of how many bandaids in the form of "Shuttle improvements" we attempt to put on it. We need new vehicles, and new approaches to developing them.

And one follow up from yesterday's flamefest. I received this delightful email from a Douglas Cudd, from League City, TX (presumably a NASA employee or contractor):

Let me just say that I concur and would like to reiterate what Donald Sensing has said before. Also, let me say you don't know what the hell you're talking about. Maybe I'm a bit mad, or maybe it's because I've been in the MCC since last night at 10, but let me just say that as much as I like to criticize NASA management, NOW IS NOT THE TIME when you have a f***ing body count, you heartless pile of s**t.

Columbia, OV102, was not the least valuable, as you put it, because it was oldest and heaviest. The Chandra observatory launched on STS-93 could not have been carried to orbit in any other vehicle OTHER THAN OV-102. And not outfitting it for ISS docking? That again made it perfectly suited for heavy, EDO equipped missions, like 107. It was, however planned to dock to the ISS during STS-118.

So, I don't mind your idiotic, myopic rantings. But in the future, why not at least try to get your facts straight? Or are you one of those guys that got an Estes rocket when you were 12 and never grew up?

Well, I'm sorry that Douglas worked so late in the MCC, and as I said, my heart (I really do have one, honest) goes out to him and all of the people in Houston who did have a deep personal loss yesterday, in both humans and hardware. I'm not sure where I criticized NASA management yesterday. I don't in fact think that they are responsible for what happened, at least not in the way they were seventeen years ago. As I said, what happened yesterday has been a long time coming (longer even than many of us expected back in the early eighties--it was always considered one of the most likely failure modes for a mission), and was a result of decisions forced by pinchpennies in Congress.

As to which orbiter is the most valuable, I would continue to contend that it's easier to outfit one of the other vehicles for EDO than it would have been to put Columbia on a diet, and if some sadistic fiend put a gun to Ron Dittemore's head and told him that he had to sacrifice an orbiter, Columbia is probably the one that he would have chosen, given the current priority of ISS support. But I'm willing to hear counter-arguments.

Not that it really matters, of course, since we did indeed have no choice. I was simply, perhaps inappropriately, in off-the-top-of-my-head comments in the immediate aftermath of the news, attempting to find a silver lining in a very dark cloud.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 02, 2003 10:21 AM
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You give me a ticket, and I'll be on the next launch, not that I'm in any way qualified or ever would. But if it's time for me to go, what better way than in a blaze of glory while remembered as a "hero".

Not to pick on the guy, but the comments you quoted are typical of the problem-- stuck in back in the Cold War, with emotionalism trumping logic, an us vs. them mentality, and if that fails, insult anyone who doesn't agree with you ("Estes rocket").

When I first heard of what happened yesterday, my first thought was not how horrible for the people in it, but how horrible for the future. This going to be an excuse for a lots of people to draw all the wrong conclusions-- we can't do anything until it's perfectly safe.

By now were promised launches every few weeks, a "Space Transportation System", deliviering goods and people to multple stations with dozens of people, with reusable and repairable satellites. Stations that would server as basestations for tenders going to geosynch orbit and the moon. Instead we've got an annual launch for each vehicle, if that, three people doing nothing but keeping their station going, and exactly one other place for the shuttle to go. (Hubble).

I saw a comment on usenet by John McCarthy who got it exactly right when he pointed out that in terms of historic exploration like that of the artic and antartic of the previous century, our space losses are comparable if not better.
What NASA has accomplished is to take what should be an adventure, with all that implies),and turn it into a bureaucratic excersize, with all that implies.

You are right about which was the best to lose-- if this didn't happen I could have forseen Congress telling NASA that since they weren't using the fleet to capacity, it would be better to mothball one of them. Considering the way NASA has mothballed stuff inthe past, that meant it would have been shipped to the Smithsonian. (And it's too bad that now that can never happen.)

Just a note to let you know that some people understand what you are saying, agree with you, and support what you are trying to do.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at February 2, 2003 11:05 AM

I agree. I also thought, damn there goes the space program, or more rightly orbital program, such as it it. Life is full of risk. When we stop exploring and stretching our abilities because of a mishap, what does that really say about us as a nation as a species? If the answer is that we stop taking risks then we should never have left our caves.

Posted by J Ratliff at February 2, 2003 01:04 PM

Emotions are raw over at NASA. Even the best intentioned criticisms are unlikely to be well receaved for some time.

Your comments on the value of the equipment vs the crew had me thinking about all the Navy books I've read where crewmembers die to save the ship. The ship is more important than any individual member of the crew, even in peace time.

Posted by ruprecht at February 2, 2003 01:35 PM

Emotions are a bit raw now. I don't disagree with your take, in fact I appreciate it. Someone needs to keep their head when all of us our losing ours.

They were our proxies, our 'could have beens'. Something of us died with them. They may have been strangers, but they also were us. We mourn the death of those who dared our dreams as much as the death of the real people. It's just that most of us see our dream in the dreams of the people who dared, not in the hardware that supported that daring.

Posted by Kathy K at February 2, 2003 04:53 PM

Oh... and I'm with Raoul. Give me a ticket on the next one, and I'd be there. Hey, I could clean the cockpit or keep the books, or make them a really nice website.....

Posted by Kathy K at February 2, 2003 05:08 PM

Way to hang in there buddy. To me, what is in bad taste is for the public and the media to morn the deaths of those we don't really know or ever cared about. Show respect, sure- but let the family & friends do the mourning and don't horn in on their territory. Has FOX asked you to appear on on of their shows? If not, why not?

Posted by Lloyd at February 3, 2003 11:29 AM

I agree and I don't agree -- I agree that it's a bit weird that people mourn a person they don't even know, and, as hte last commenter stated, it's sort of like horning in on the territory of the actual family and friends who are actually effected.

At the same time, I think people are mourning the individuals (and not just the ship or the program) because astronauts are some of hte only people we can reguard as heros. They train incredibly hard, they're smart, and they risk their lives to do such an incredible thing as going into space. I think people understand how much work it is and don't begrudge the astronuats their oppurtunity to do something most of us will never do. (On the other hand, there is a lot of contempt for space "tourists", because they're getting to do something amazing just because they have a wad of cash -- people would never grieve them in the same way.)

So I do grieve for those astronauts. Not tears all over my face, wailing like an idiot grieve, but I respect their drive to get where they are, and their bravery in facing such a scary situation.

Posted by Ceili at February 3, 2003 02:07 PM

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