Monday, July 11, 2011

Sayonara Space Shuttle

So, our space shuttle is in orbit for the last time and come July 20th the US will have no manned space flights for the forseeable future, unless of course we pay the Russkies to let our guy hitch a ride on their Soyuz spacecraft.

How's that for irony. We kick their space butts in the 1960s and 70s and now they have a monopoly on manned space flight. Oh, since they have a monopoly they jack up the price for riding with them. Sweet.

I was in junior high school when we started hurling homo sapiens into space. In order to watch the launches of Shepherd and Glenn, we school kids got out of class. It doesn't get any better than that.

And I've had those fascinating conversations with folks who remembered Orville and Wilbur Wright's first powered flight in 1903. These people also were among the generation who lived to watch our men on the moon in 1969. That we went from the Wright flyer at Kitty Hawk to Apollo and the moon in one lifetime is an absolutely astonishing feat of human progress.

Now, the space shuttle: 135 flights, a gazillion dollars. What did it give us?

Most notably, and tragically, one blow-up (O-rings, remember, heads rolled and additional money flowed) and one disintegration (ice damaged tiles, more money flows).

What else?

Well, a cynic might recall the ultimate congressional junket taken by Senator Jake Garn in 1985. The Senator "joked" about not giving NASA another cent unless he got his ride. He got it.

Or, how about the geriatric joyride of John Glenn in 1998. He was 77. Was this a consolation for running for president and not getting off the ground in that endeavor? Or, was it a retro, feelgood event for a nostalgia hungry country? NASA didn't say.

Then there's the Space Shuttle as a diversity program. Pick one. They got a slot.

How about the concept of bolstering the Space Shuttle program with various occupations? Teacher in space. Yeah. Kids get to see teacher on TV in their classroom. Cutting edge.

Wait! The Space Station. The present shuttle flight is delivering toilet paper and stuff to the Space Station, about a year's supply. Well, you don't want to run out of that, even if it does cost several hundred million dollars to deliver it.

Quick, name ten things the Space Station has given us.

Well, er, ah, there's all that research. Uh huh. You mean the research that has given us broad knowledge of how Russians, Americans, Japanese, Malaysians, South Africans (and don't forget the eight space tourists who paid the Russians to do what common people cannot do) and a bunch of others are able to interact in tight quarters.

Or, how about when they all exit the space station and huddle in the shuttle while ominous and dangerous space junk zooms by. Wow. There's something to be proud of. We can duck on earth when someone chunks a brick at us and, while in orbit, we know how to suit up and cower in the shuttle when a tiny piece of sheet metal is headed our way.

Isn't it thrilling when some astronaut floats around in space and try and tighten a nut or some low tech thing like that, probably with a $9,000 space wrench. Neat.

It is a fascinating program.

So, why are folks saying that it was a bad idea from the start? Perhaps because it over promised (low payload costs increased geometrically from original estimates), under delivered (Shuttle to Space Station to Mars - sorry didn't work out, but we had to keep spending anyway), and just keep on going and spending and rocketing along.

Take a bad idea and make it worse. Government in action. Horse by committee?

Have you listened to the program bureaucrats, the scientists in the various disciplines, the astronomers, and big space thinkers talk about stuff these days. They start with something like, "You can't put a price or a value on aspirations, or ideas, or imaginations, or dreams...etc. etc. etc." Yeah, right. You really can't put a price on it and that's part of the problem.

Wait a minute. DO put a price on it and put a goal with it. Achieve the goal somewhere in the ballpark of the estimated price. We're paying the bills and have a right to expect that.

It costs a ton to put humans on machines that can exit the earth. How about we take some billions of dollars, invest them in big, dumb rockets and launch a few hundred unmanned and unwomaned missions to wherever in the solar system. We can watch it all on TV, HDTV.


So long shuttle.

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