So Long, Shuttle — It's Been Great
When the Space Shuttle lands—which it did this morning for the last time—it lights up the west coast of Florida with a resounding double sonic-boom. It's not subtle, either. It rattles the windows to the point that even when you know what it is, you ask…what the hell was that?
I missed it this morning. The orbiter's track was evidently far enough south to rattle the windows in Fort Myers, but not here. Too bad. It was always a thrill to hear it. And for the record, the shuttle is moving so fast that by the time you hear that shock wave, it's most of the way to Cape Canaveral and if you're quick about it, you can tune a cable channel just in time to see it touch down.
Speaking of records, did the shuttle program establish an impressive one? I'd say it's mixed. But at a total cost of $209 billion over 30 years, I would say it was a bargain, even though NASA promised each launch would cost only $10 million and the actual cost was $1.2 billion—120 times as much. For that money, it launched 3.5 million pounds of cargo, placed 180 satellites, returned 52 to earth, docked at the International Space Station 37 times and flew 789 astronauts/cosmonauts from 16 countries. All told, the shuttles completed 21,030 orbits in 198,728 hours of flight.
In the July 18th issue of Time magazine, famed space mechanic Story Musgrave mourned the shuttle's passing, but vows to go into space again as a tourist. Following his spectacularly successful 1993 repair on the Hubble Telescope, along with Jeffrey Hoffman, I recall an interview with Musgrave in which he said all of the crews sweated the launch until MECO—main engine cutoff. He hasn't mellowed that view with age. He told Time the shuttle was very unsafe and very fragile. "A butterfly bolted onto a bullet, you know."
Depending on how you want to look at it, the shuttle's safety record was either horrible or surprisingly good. On a per launch basis, its accident rate was nearly 1500 per 100,000 launches, a number that would give anyone pause. On the other hand, the shuttle's fatal accident rate per hour of flight was a more reasonable .99/100,000 hours—considerably better than the general aviation rate. These are somewhat silly comparisons, but kind of interesting, nonetheless.
In his Time interview, Musgrave seemed only mildly impressed with the shuttle's achievements, suggesting that what the country really needed was not a space truck, but bolder missions of exploration such as the Apollo program. I agree with that view. The shuttle was more of a utility hitter than a big bat in the seventh inning.
But now that it's grounded, it means for the foreseeable future, the U.S. is not a space faring nation. The shuttle, for all its faults and failures, was ultimately a prestige program that, I suspect, not even many aviation enthusiasts paid much attention to. But now that it's gone? Now that that launch facility and huge runway at Kennedy Space Center will slowly deteriorate, along with all the facilities that supported it, not to mention the people who ran the program…I'm telling you, we're gonna miss those 30-year-old crates.
I already do.