The Shuttle in Retrospect

It’s pre-dawn, southern Florida. Distant spotlights reflect off a white craft over the water, and at once, the craft is lost in a supernatural light. Brighter than the sun, the ship silently rises up, faster and faster into the sunrise. A half minute later, you are pummeled with a wall of sound, louder than anything you’ve ever heard, deafening as the Space Shuttle shrinks to a tiny point atop a titanic column of smoke.

The drama that accompanies a shuttle launch will soon be a thing of the past, as NASA will be retiring the program soon after the next mission (STS-133). The shuttles have been in service since 1981, and have greatly contributed to our modern understanding of the universe. Discovery brought the Hubble Telescope to orbit, which has given us indescribable beauty and wonder as it allowed us to peer farther into the cosmos than we’ve ever been able to look before. The Chandra X-ray observatory, launched from Columbia, discovered  evidence for black holes among many other accomplishments. Many other satellites were launched that gave us unprecedented data about the cosmos and our own planet, including the fact that we were putting a hole in the ozone that we eventually stopped. Microgravity experiments performed aboard the shuttle eventually led to the development of the International Space Station, a symbol of peaceful international cooperation in an increasingly fractured world.

The history of the shuttle is also marred by tragic failures. Out of the five shuttles built to fly in space, only three remain intact today, as two of the 134 missions launched  were destroyed in flight. The first, Challenger, exploded seconds after launch, taking 6 astronauts and a teacher with it, due to an inadequate devotion to safety and a lax  bureaucratic climate.The second failure, Columbia, was in 2003, and it’s failure was due to the shuttle deteriorating systems combined with inadequate safety measures. These 23 year old systems were critical in resisting the extreme temperatures found during re-entry into our atmosphere, but they were compromised during launch because of some debris that fell onto the wings during launch. Seven astronauts, whose names are now commemorated on martian hills, lost their lives during this failure.
The eventual cost of the shuttle also proved to be much more expensive than its designers had ever anticipated. The shuttle program began in the aftermath of the Apollo program, to create a reusable spacecraft to shuttle people and cargo reliably to low-earth-orbit (LEO). The original shuttle program called for up to 55 launches a year, but complexity and unanticipated needs (such as the need to inspect 35,000 individual heat-resisting tiles after every landing) made that design a dream. The most complicated machine ever built would prove to be more challenging than they anticipated.The reality was a final cost of about 500 million dollars per launch, with a total failure rate of 2%. The final ability to haul cargo to LEO was also much less than it had been just a decade earlier, as NASA retired the monstrous Saturn-5 rockets that brought man to the moon.
At the end of the last flight, NASA will lose it’s capacity to shuttle people into space, relying instead on the Russian Soyuz vehicles to service the human needs of the ISS.

However, this vacuum of governmental involvement in manned space travel could be the best thing possible for the space industry, as private companies are now slated to fill in the gaps that NASA has left with the retiring shuttle. Some of the 6 billion dollars NASA has seeded into this private industry with their latest budget will go to projects like SpaceShip One, the Virgin Galactic owned craft that will soon be flinging people into LEO over the skies of New Mexico. Others, such as the Falcon 9 rocket owned by SpaceX, are slated to ferry cargo to orbit at a fraction of the cost of the shuttle with similar payloads. For reference, the cost to get a pound of anything to orbit on the shuttle was about $10,000, whereas the Falcon 9 will get the same amount into orbit for $500.
With the burden of cargo lifting transferred to the private sector, NASA will be free to do what it does best: Science. Instead of wasting half their budget on obsolete and dangerous technology, they can use their limited budget to better explore our universe, while opening up space travel to the rest of us.

Personal space travel is today is where personal air travel was a century ago, and it can only improve with the room the retired shuttle will leave us. As for the Space Shuttle, her successes and failures will be forever remembered as part of our first, tenous steps into the cosmic playground.

This was a post originally written for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily


~ by Andrew on December 19, 2010.

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