Friday, August 19, 2005

Scrap the Space Station

The Heritage Foundation asks an important question, Is the Space Station Necessary?

No, answers the New York Times in a well-argued editorial that ran this past weekend. Abandoning it and the costly, dangerous shuttle could save taxpayers $40 billion over the next decade without impairing NASA's long-term vision one bit.

The space shuttle may be one of the government's biggest, longest-running boondoggles, as Maciej Ceglowski explains in the recent "The Rocket to Nowhere." And believe it or not, things didn't look any more promising--in terms of safety, scientific merit, or expense--back in 1980, before the first shuttle even launched, as Gregg Easterbrook reported at the time in the landmark Washington Monthly piece "Beam Me Out of This Death Trap, Scotty."

According to seven members of NASA's Return To Flight task group, even $1.5 billion and a 2-year delay hasn't made the shuttle much safer. As the Times concludes in its editorial, "spending billions more on a white elephant would be throwing good money after bad."

I support space exploration, especially manned missions to the Moon and Mars - but the space shuttle and the International Space Station seem to be impeding these goals. The space shuttle is a far too fragile vessel designed for far too many tasks. "A Rocket to Nowhere," mentioned above, provides a detailed account of how the shuttle was designed, noting that:

The final Shuttle design, incorporating all of the budgetary and Air Force design constraints, was impressive but not particularly useful. Very soon after the start of the program, it became clear that Shuttle launches would not be routine events, that it would cost a great deal of money to repair each orbiter after its trip to space, and that estimates of launch cost and frequency had been wildly optimistic...

In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

A comparison to the age of exploration proves insightful:

[NASA likens] critics of manned space flight to those Europeans in the 1500's who would have cancelled the great voyages of discovery rather than face the loss of one more ship.

Of course, the great explorers of the 1500's did not sail endlessly back and forth a hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, nor did they construct a massive artificial island they could repair to if their boat sprang a leak.

Over the past three years, while the manned program has been firing styrofoam out of cannons on the ground, unmanned NASA and ESA programs have been putting landers on Titan, shooting chunks of metal into an inbound comet, driving rovers around Mars and continuing to gather a variety of priceless observations from the many active unmanned orbital telescopes and space probes sprinkled through the Solar System. At the same time, the skeleton crew on the ISS has been fixing toilets, debugging laptops, changing batteries, and speaking to the occasional elementary school over ham radio.

The New York Times points out, the station's remaining scientific value is limited:

NASA now plans to shrink the station's research and focus it on studies to examine the long-term effects of space travel on human biology. But the station will have limited value for that purpose. It is shielded by the Earth's magnetic field from the fierce cosmic radiation thought to pose the greatest danger in interplanetary travel, so it will tell us little about how to cope with that problem.

Even the presumed trump card for the station - the opportunity to study the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the health of crew members - has been greatly exaggerated. In low Earth orbit the astronauts are subjected to zero gravity, whereas on the Moon they would face one-sixth Earth's gravity, and on Mars one-third. The important question is how those low levels of gravity will affect their health. Incredibly, the one scientific instrument that could shed light on the issue - a centrifuge that would subject test animals to a range of different gravities - seems likely to be eliminated from the station. Zero gravity would be relevant on a trip to Mars, but that journey can be made in less time than astronauts have already spent in weightless environments in orbit...

The better, but more drastic option would be to retire the shuttles immediately and back out of the station. That would save some $40 billion over a decade or so, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The money could be used to accelerate a landing on the Moon by four years or bolster research programs that would otherwise be cut.

Let's spend that money on something more inspiring and put NASA engineers to work finding ways to get new places, not how to defend the shuttle from disobedient foam.

Update, Oct. 3: NASA administrator says space shuttle was a mistake:

The space shuttle and International Space Station — nearly the whole of the U.S. manned space program for the past three decades — were mistakes, NASA chief Michael Griffin said Tuesday.

In a meeting with USA TODAY's editorial board, Griffin said NASA lost its way in the 1970s, when the agency ended the Apollo moon missions in favor of developing the shuttle and space station, which can only orbit Earth...

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