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Twenty-Two Years

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.

 
 

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8 Comments

Sam wrote:

Happy Birthday Rand!

Leland wrote:

Ditto what Sam said.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

The thing that is interesting to me is how the US's response to Challenger changed things. I think if they had promptly figured out the cause and continued launching that year, the Shuttle would have come out a lot stronger. For example, a fair amount of payloads were shifted to other vehicles, especially the DoD's decision to use Titan IV and IVb for around 40 launches from 1989 to 2005. Maybe they would have anyway, but a firm decision by NASA to support DoD launches might have kept most if not all of that business. Also we have the shift of at least one science mission to launch vehicles other than the Shuttle (Spitzer Space Telescope). As I dimly recall, didn't NASA rule out payload booster rockets on future Shuttle missions?

It also opened the door to laws like the Space Settlement Act 1988 (mentioned by Rand in his story) and the Launch Services Purchase Act (passed at the end of 1990). The latter helped keep NASA (despite its scofflaw ways) out of much of the commercial launch market. That's more launch volume that NASA lost.

Finally, it had some effect internationally. Some business might have also come to Ariane (despite their own launch failure during this time. China decided to enter the commercial launch market. And the ISS program was delayed long enough for it to become a vehicle for transfering funds to the Russian space agency.

Tman wrote:

I was in seventh grade when this happened, and to this day it is the number one response for me in the "do you remember where you were when it happened" category, without question. 14 years old in middle school is a strange enough time period as it is without any added distractions. I can remember the way that everyone was just so speechless afterwards, and until 9/11 there hasn't been any other moment that reverberated so heavily.

I'm of the opinion however, that future space flight should be reserved until we can come up with practical means for mitigating near earth objects (asteroids/comets). We have plenty of current technology that can be used for this purpose, and applied towards a realistic solution of this problem. Currently, we have nothing available nor planned in case of emergency, and this is nothing short of irresponsible.

There is no point in further manned space exploration until we can properly defend our home from civilization destroying events. And it's coming sooner or later.

Tman wrote:

I was in seventh grade when this happened, and to this day it is the number one response for me in the "do you remember where you were when it happened" category, without question. 14 years old in middle school is a strange enough time period as it is without any added distractions. I can remember the way that everyone was just so speechless afterwards, and until 9/11 there hasn't been any other moment that reverberated so heavily.

I'm of the opinion however, that future space flight should be reserved until we can come up with practical means for mitigating near earth objects (asteroids/comets). We have plenty of current technology that can be used for this purpose, and applied towards a realistic solution of this problem. Currently, we have nothing available nor planned in case of emergency, and this is nothing short of irresponsible.

There is no point in further manned space exploration until we can properly defend our home from civilization destroying events. And it's coming sooner or later.

Brian Hall wrote:

TMan;
Learn some statistics and weighted return on investment stuff. Blowing your wad on very low probability disasters guarantees stall-out of steady development which may well obviate the risk you fear so much by a means you cannot yet envision. History suggests the odds of that are actually quite high. Technology is not a zero-sum game.

Mike wrote:

I was 11 miles from the pad when Challenger launched. Everyone outside the program thought it was a safe vehicle. Having grown up with the space program, and NASA having never lost a crew inflight; many had come to see spaceflight as almost routine. If I remember, some networks didn't even cover the launch live. NASA was so desperate to recapture public attention, the had resorted to stunts such as sending legislators and teachers into space to boost interest. No one realized how dangerous the Shuttle system was. I haven't watched a launch since that I don't hold my breath during liftoff. Spaceflight will never (in my lifetime) be routine or safe. We must continue to press ahead with space exploration for many reasons and we as a nation must realize it.

Kelly Starks wrote:

Happy birthday Rand, though thatís a hell of a buzz kill to carry on your birthday every year.

I was working at JSC for the shuttle fight planning department during Challenger, and that was a hellish shock. Folks you used to see in the halls, now dead, etc.

I have to agree with your idea that it spelled the end of the shuttle, or at least NASA's response did. A friend who worked commercial outreach for shuttle said right after the accident, companies took it in stride. If you're a mega-corp NASTY stuff happens. But as the months rolled on, and folks realized it wasn't a unavoidable accident, it was a known expected problem NASA had covered up for political advantage - and that NASA was still trying to sweep under the carpet; then the companies formerly interested in flying - started to fade out. NASA was unreliable, and willing to risk their own peoples lives rather then risk the agencies image. Astronauts, some famous, some not, decided to leave. Engineers and staff got so disgusted with NASA still playing politics with the investigation they left, or gave up the dream.

Had NASA really thrown them self into cleaning house, refitting shuttles or whatever it would take to make them safe, the shuttle program could have continued on even stronger. Instead NASA braded itself as unsafe, unreliable, limited, and too political. Hubble, fleets of failed Mars probes, etc buried NASA image further. So not only the end of shuttle can be traced to then - but I think the end of NASA.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on January 28, 2008 9:50 AM.

The Radiation Problem was the previous entry in this blog.

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