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So Long, Shuttle — It's Been Great

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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.

Comments (41)

The facility could be turned into a museum and the biggest GA runway in the world is already there to welcome us flying types. It is funny how the time has gone by. I remember being at the cape 30+ years ago (makes me feel old) when they had a full size model of the shuttle made of plywood to make sure the doors would be large enough to get the thing into the preparation building and back out again. Nothing like building a plane in your garage and finding it won't fit out the door. I never followed it very closly but I guess I'll miss it now that it's gone.

Posted by: Stephen Bradish | July 22, 2011 7:34 AM    Report this comment

The shutdown of the shuttle without an improved replacement marks the symbolic end of the era of American Exceptionalism.

Posted by: Dale Olsen | July 22, 2011 8:50 AM    Report this comment

The US is a spacefaring nation, and has done incredible and bold and impressive space exploration that has gone far beyond what Apollo achieved, and far beyond what any other nation can do.

In the meantime, the manned space program has struggled to stay in low earth orbit, at phenomenal cost.

The lesson of the two space programs has been: never send a human to do a robot's job.

Human space flight is good for space tourism and, maybe someday, for rapid place-to-place travel on Earth. It's a tough lesson to learn, but there's noplace else out there for us (and if there is, the robots will find it). As Elton John sang, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids."

The cost of the Shuttle has been stupefying, enough to buy about 1 million small GA airplanes (one per pilot, or so?), or 8 million cars. It has largely been a waste: yes, some people are excited by it, but some people are excited by ballet, too - it doesn't morally justify confiscating and spending that much of other people's money (or even confiscating ANY of other people's money).

The Space Shuttle should have been retired in the 1990s. The poor thing appeared embarrassed in the face of the robots' achievements. Forcing it to keep proving its own irrelevance was unkind. At least now, the surviving shuttles will have honored places in museums, where the manned space program belongs.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | July 22, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

The shuttle saga was one of those human endeavors that separated our citizenry into two general camps. It was hated by those who feel spending a dime on anything other than social welfare programs is immoral and was loved…or at least enjoyed…by what I will arbitrarily dub the “Spirit of Man” crowd.

Social welfare types believe the primary goal of society should be to minimize or preferably eliminate life differences between individuals, sometimes referred to as the ‘equality of outcome’ objective. Epitomizing this attitude was a bumper sticker that was popular a few years back that read “Live Simply so others may Simply Live”, meaning you should restrict your own footprint of existence so that the planet can accommodate ever more individuals living interchangeable existences. Engaging in anything non-essential to basic existence automatically conflicts with that mindset.

“Spirit of Man” types, on the other hand, are OK with the notion of expending money & effort on things that have little immediate practical payoff, offer only deferred payoff, or even have no reasonable prospect of payoff at all. While they may not all share the same vision as to our proper path to the future, in general they are not enamored with the notion that our primary objective should be to strive toward a planet without competition where a maximized population lives in bland sameness.

Personally, I'd rather hang with the second group.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 22, 2011 9:18 AM    Report this comment

John, lest there be any confusion, I have no interest in eliminating life differences between individuals. As for the Spirit of Man, I think 1,000,000 GA airplanes would have done a lot more for the Spirit of Man than the Shuttle program did.

But, more to the point, different Men have different things that motivate their Spirits. We are not all the same, as you note. Most of us have higher priorities - dreams, goals, ambitions or just boring old needs - that animate us far more than the Shuttle program. Our dreams are the Spirit of Man too. If you want to spend money on your dreams, you're free to do so. But when you use the government to steal from others to fund your dreams, when you undermine others' dreams, and take away from what animates their Spirit rather than yours, what you're doing is wrong.

I'll hang out with the space tourism crowd any day. What they're doing is cool.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | July 22, 2011 9:40 AM    Report this comment

I think folks need to calm down about the end of the space program. It's just a matter of time before we go back out there. For now, I think our resources are better suited to fix the all the non-sense on this planet before we go out there and screw up other spheres.

Posted by: William Wang | July 22, 2011 9:43 AM    Report this comment

...and a moment of silence for the crews that were lost in the two accidents...

I think that the Shuttle was due to be retired, but not having something ready to go in less than a year is the tragic part of all this. Now we have to rely on the Russians (who were once our sworn enemy) to get to space...does anyone else see the irony in this?

Long live the shuttles, wherever they may be stuffed and mounted next.

Posted by: R. Doe | July 22, 2011 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Umm, how about SpaceX? Or how about the USAF's launches? It's a shame that SpaceX doesn't yet have the "official ability" to resupply the ISS, but I think that's more a testing/approval problem than a truly technical problem. Just because "NASA doesn't do the shuttle anymore" doesn't mean that the US isn't a "space-faring nation." We have, however, gotten our spending priorities rather mucked up. For the record, I'd rather see people in space instead of robots. AI doesn't work (yet and maybe it never will) and being able to adapt to a changing situation is incredibly valuable.

Posted by: Roy Etter | July 22, 2011 10:30 AM    Report this comment

My grief is short lived when I look at what the private sector is doing in their space programs. When you look at them I don't know how you could say the US is not s space faring nation. Quite the contrary. If I may be permitted to post a link this video is very encouraging:

http://youtu.be/2h_d6YVA1Kg

Posted by: Jon Devine | July 22, 2011 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Automatically culled. Alright then. It was about Bigelow and Spacex and all the domestic private space programs.

Posted by: Jon Devine | July 22, 2011 10:33 AM    Report this comment

I'm all for Space X and Virgin and such private enterprises. But they are there for profit, not for science and not for exploration that doesn't lead to profit. There's a place for that.

I have always seen the Apollo program as one of the great technical achievements of the 20th century. It was inspiring and inspirational; it riveted the world. It was born of politics, morphed to science and became one of man's great explorations solely for the sake of exploration. Robots are great, but they don't sing.

I know it's fashionable to bash NASA and everything the government does. But there are footsteps up there in the moon dust and they wouldn't be there now if NASA hadn't succeeded with some of the best and brightest.

The moon and Mars ought to be on the agenda again because that's what we do as a civilization. If we didn't, Britain, Spain and Portugal would be the extent of our known world.

Who would be satisfied with that?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 22, 2011 4:08 PM    Report this comment

"NASA promised each launch would cost only $10 million and the actual cost was $1.2 billion—a dozen times as much."

Correction: 10 million * 12 = 120 million 10 million * =>120<= = 1.2 billion

You meant to say: "NASA promised each launch would cost only $10 million and the actual cost was $1.2 billion—a WHOPPING 120 times as much." (emphasis added)

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | July 22, 2011 6:01 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm...I flew down and "watched" the landing. Initially I was saddened that a symbol of our once great nation was being scrubbed. Its another sign of the times.

I never actually saw the shuttle, but I did see the space station pass over minutes before. That HAD to be some kind of 21 gun salute courtesy of some really smart folks.The whole shebang was rather unimpressive from an adrenaline junkie perspective, but thats not really why I went. I attended out of respect for the achievements of NASA over the past 60 years, and also to support space endeavors in general.

Im rarely emotional as it gets in the way of getting things done, and I grew up thinking emotion is for wussies. However I have repeatedly cried about the experience. Im not entirely sure why as its a mixture of things.

First, Im proud of of my nations contribution to humanity, technology spinoffs from the space program have changed our world. The list fills volumes, but developing the computer is high on that list.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 22, 2011 6:58 PM    Report this comment

Seeing the space station was surreal. The rate at which it traversed the field of vision was impressive to say the least. It was a reminder that NASA put a lasting outpost in orbit before the curtains fell. All is not lost.

I have devoted many hours reading all about Von Braun, Apollo, Shuttle, hubble, Phoenix, The Russian Contribution,etc. Why? Because Im a spirit of man type and instinctively I want my race to survive. Earth will not be around forever. The end goal, as silly as it may seem to mortals with a 70 year life expectancy, is to colonize another place. Thats what most astrophysicists long for.

Intelligent humans realize this, and I think there is a good chance of it happening eventually. Somehow that gives me hope for humanity.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 22, 2011 7:11 PM    Report this comment

Ooops. Added the trailing zero there, Jeffrey. Thanks for the point out.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 23, 2011 3:30 AM    Report this comment

Yep, me too. I watched the last landing and the significance of it has made me really reflective. I grew up with that semi-tamed firecracker. The first time I shed a tear for people from the other side of the world was when Challenger exploded.

I know NASA wanted a much safer, smaller version but was forced to accept something big enough to retrieve spy satellites. I know it never lived up to the promised economies. I know my phone has more power than its original computers. And I know it represented a disappointment to all those who hoped Apollo was the beginning of something really big. Despite this, it remains pretty awesome to me and the fact that you guys persevered for 135 launches is admirable in the extreme.

If it falls to others to take up the baton while you guys rejig your economy, I've got a few thoughts:

1. The US set the scene in the 50s and 60s and will be critical to our future space fairing progress. I believe that getting to the moon was the best thing our species has done and you Yanks did that. And drive through burgers. While I hope you are beating yourselves up a fair bit at the moment, never forget how proud of you we all were and, I trust, will be again.

2. I hope that a concerted effort is made to retain, collate and pass on the knowledge stored in the heads of all those NASA people.

3. You should try cricket. It might help. And the Chinese have started a program to get good at it. Don't let them leapfrog you in space AND cricket.

Posted by: John Hogan | July 23, 2011 9:17 AM    Report this comment

We needed a safe, reliable, and economical way to low earth orbit and the shuttle wasn’t it.

Posted by: Rod Pollard | July 25, 2011 7:29 AM    Report this comment

I am as big a fan of space exploration as anyone, but having worked in and around the space industry in the late 60's and early 70's, I have always felt that the shuttle should have been killed by 1990. By then it was obvious that it was never going to even come close to any of its design goals. It cost way too much, took way to long to turn around and relaunch, and took way too many people to operate the system. In addition NASA created alrgre, self sevring beuracracy around it as our only path to manned space flight. This myopic environment stifled support and proper funding for alternatives. I believe that we would be much further ahead if we had kiled the shuttle and move on, or back to affordale technology for manned spaceflight 25 years ago.

Posted by: James Hiatt | July 25, 2011 8:07 AM    Report this comment

I am as big a fan of space exploration as anyone, but having worked in and around the space industry in the late 60's and early 70's, I have always felt that the shuttle should have been killed by 1990. By then it was obvious that it was never going to even come close to any of its design goals. It cost way too much, took way to long to turn around and relaunch, and took way too many people to operate the system. In addition NASA created alrgre, self sevring beuracracy around it as our only path to manned space flight. This myopic environment stifled support and proper funding for alternatives. I believe that we would be much further ahead if we had kiled the shuttle and move on, or back to affordale technology for manned spaceflight 25 years ago.

Posted by: James Hiatt | July 25, 2011 8:07 AM    Report this comment

The shuttle was an impressive technical achievement and a pretty good heavy-lifter. But the cost was much too high and NASA knew that 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the agency isn't able to develop inexpensive launch capabilities.

While we may mourn the end of the Shuttle program, everyone agrees that we still require access to space and the U.S. is actually in the lead developing a nascent private space launch industry.

Sure, profit seeking firms act in their best interests, but they will be happy to take government dollars to launch satellites and astronauts. I suspect it is going to be a little bit like the old airmail contracts from the early days of aviation -highly desirable, hopefully less dangerous.

The more interesting thing is what our nation will do when the Chinese enter orbit and later, land on the moon? Will our nation be willing to cede human exploration of our solar system to another nation? If not, is NASA the right organization to lead the exploration? I'm not certain today's NASA could achieve a 10 year "moon mandate" as it did in the 60's even with unlimited funding.

Posted by: Tom Berry | July 25, 2011 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Thankfully no one complained about "all that money being spent in space". I really got tired of hearing that for years. On another note, gov't. has never been economical with any of its programs. It is not in the nature of the beast. That said, really who else could have done it? Unfortunately there is no one really wealthy enough (including the US) to really take the long view. Last note, really gentlemen, R2D2 and 3CPO aside, I think it will be a really long time before any robot could replace a human being in any endeavor. think Apollo 13.

Posted by: David Loring | July 25, 2011 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Rod Pollard said, "We needed a safe, reliable, and economical way to low earth orbit and the shuttle wasn’t it."

Rod,

There may be safe and reliable ways into orbit, but there are no economical ways -- at least not yet. The problem is something called gravity. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to lift even a relatively small package into orbit. Add to that the weight of the life support equipment a shuttle crew needed, and there was never going to be an economical way to put the shuttle into orbit.

To get just one shuttle mission into orbit consumed 1.1 million pounds of liquid propellant (liquid hydrogen and oxygen) carried in the external fuel tank and burned in the shuttle's three engines, and another 2.2 million pounds of solid propellant (a mix of ammonium perchlorate and powdered aluminum) in the two strap-on booster rockets.

And most of that fuel was needed just to get the weight of the rest of fuel off the ground.

The economical ways into orbit have yet to be developed, and will probably be something such as an electromagnetic launch.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | July 25, 2011 3:14 PM    Report this comment

To say the promise was $10M/launch requires you at least to add that it was promised in 1972 dollars, and then do the escalation of those '72 dollars to about $54M to compare with the present $1.2B, to make the point a fair one. Granted, the shuttle was nowhere near as cheap as NASA wanted it to be, but the salesmanship that precedes such a program always understates the reality of cost, whether space, social, military, or infrastructure. Don't need to make the cost differential any worse than it actually was...

Posted by: James L Graham | July 25, 2011 4:54 PM    Report this comment

Gary

Yes gravity sucks. I was speaking of economics in relative terms. The shuttle was being developed when I was in high school and I was absolutely enthralled by it. This is while I still trusted NASA & the government (yes even the FAA) a lot more than I do now. So when NASA said the shuttle would save huge amounts of money I believed them. I also remember in the background a small chorus of “crazy” scientists and engineers pleading that the shuttle would in fact cost much more than NASA was saying. The anti-shuttle folks felt that new designs of standard configuration staging rockets with expendable boosters would be much more economical. I really wondered at the time if they were right because they were some very smart people. Now it just makes me chuckle when I see the designs be considered today.

This gravity you speak of had a much more severe impact on the shuttle because of all the demands for reusability. The flight surfaces and associated controls along with landing gear added immensely to the weight of the vehicle. The penalties don’t stop there. The shuttle fought a horrendous aerodynamic battle on lift-off as well. The transonic and supersonic aerodynamics could probably be likened to that of a B17.

BTW: At the time many of those”crazy” scientists and engineers were saying a manned mission to Mars was not cost effective and could be done almost as well with robotics. I wonder how that will go?

Posted by: Rod Pollard | July 25, 2011 5:17 PM    Report this comment

Imagine Apollo 13 if it had been robotic: Flip off the switches and go home.

Anyone remember the technological promises used to sell the Shuttle: Better metallurgy; medicines; bio-research; corporate partners doing R&D in space? Where are the results?

So in my view the shuttle's mission was to build a space station whose purpose is - uhm - justify the Shuttle? As was Skylab and Mir, both of which swim with the fishes. I suspect the ISS will too. Probably not encouraging news for the ISS crews who see their redundancy grounded. One political mis-step or a grounded Russian fleet and they are doomed. There is evidence that the Russians have flipped off the switches on manned flights and gone home.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | July 25, 2011 6:39 PM    Report this comment

Maybe we have added to our wealth of knowledge of assembling, capturing and repairing stuff in space and zero-g ops in general. I recall the first EVA from a Mercury capsule almost ended in disaster because the astronaut didn't understand mass vs weight as well as we thought and exhausted himself flailing. But if it had been a robot we could have flipped the switches and gone home.

Meanwhile, There are robots decades past their useful life still faithfully sending back data from beyond our solar system and the surface of Mars and the Moon. If they fail we can flip off the switches and go home.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | July 25, 2011 6:40 PM    Report this comment

Humans are gravity-dependent. We evolved with it, and without it do not do well. Multi-generational missions are wonderful until one learns from Nasa's scientists that they fear what long term weightlessness does to the body. Even more disturbing is what a child born in space might develop into. And we could never bring him or her back to Earth because it might kill them. If it were a robot a return isn't necessary.

Anyone remember the Lockheed Martin X-33 VentureStar? It was the test vehicle for a Shuttle replacement. Google it for some interesting reading of Nasa's management practices.

Much has been written about bureaucracies that grow from effective, productive innovators into self-serving and marginally effective career paths. If the end of the Shuttle program means the end of Nasa so be it. Maybe a new bureau will emerge, faster, cheaper, more effective.

Finally, there is the military/Nasa connection. The USAF committed itself (or was ordered to, I forget) utilize the Shuttle as much as possible. As Shuttles crashed and exploded, launch schedules slipped which created a bottleneck years long. It also reduced the number of Vandenburg launches, another redundancy. That left birds growing obsolete sitting in crates rather than in orbit. I suspect the military has lobbied hard for the end of the Shuttle program so they can once again contract for Thor, Atlas, Agena and Minuteman and other readily available single use-boosters to deliver their payloads.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | July 25, 2011 6:41 PM    Report this comment

The first US EVA was in a Gemini Capsule, not Mercury...Ed White ran out of propellant and had to pull himself back in, but he made it OK. However, a few days earlier his Russian counterpart had difficulty getting back in because his suit got over-inflated. A robot just doesn't have the same value as a human actually going there.

Posted by: A Richie | July 28, 2011 3:27 PM    Report this comment

A statement was frequently made of "flip off the switches and go home" for robotic missions. May I suggest that flipping off the switches on several missions in the past still cost a lot of money and yielded no results on several occasions? We are human and humans make mistakes. Humans have the ability to correct mistakes. Think fixing the Hubble and other satellites. No doubt there is a need for robotic missions. There is also a need for human missions. On the human we need to solve the medical issues. On the robotic side we need to solve issues of parallel programming and flow charts. We all need more than one screwdriver in our tool box. Imagine what we can do when we utilize humans and robots together. Stopping now doesn't make sense. We need to solve the problem on both sides....human and robot.

Posted by: David Loring | July 28, 2011 5:43 PM    Report this comment

"flipping off the switches on several missions in the past still cost a lot of money and yielded no results on several occasions?"

They all cost money, but man-certified flights cost more. In event of failure we always learn something unless telemetry fails at launch. Remember, all of the initial Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle tests were unmanned, robotic missions before we put people aboard, and many started as SAC ICBMs that failed dozens of times during test and evaluation and later during deployment, learning as we went. I come from the Minuteman I and II systems and we had low expectations they would work properly, which is why multiple missiles were programmed against the same target. Minuteman is a safe system to work with. Systems like Titan II had 30,000 psi helium systems in the silo that would cut you if near a leak and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer that turned into fuming red nitric acid in contact with moist skin and lungs. The Hydrazine fuel would just kill you. Titan II was the Apollo booster. I'm amazed there weren't more accidents than we had with it.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | July 30, 2011 4:35 PM    Report this comment

On the other hand the Mars Rovers were a product of management that wanted faster, cheaper, more reliable sorties they could rapidly improve on and duplicate if the first failed. The program worked marvelously. Then the administration changed and all monies went to modernizing the Shuttle fleet and the program died, but the rovers live on. For rover updates go to the JPL web site at: marsrovers*jpl*nasa*gov/mission/traverse_maps*html (Replace the asterisks with periods.)

The GOAL of manned space flight at the time was to show the Ruskies we were better than they were. In the rush we did a lot of technical things that were just plain stupid. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three on the pad is representative of that: A death chamber that would make a prison warden proud.

What are the goals today? If they require people then include people. If not, not. If you've read Jim Kranz' book "failure is not an option' you know that after the initial rush spaceflight is boredom. Mission control for manned missions is uber boredom. He opined that they secretly hoped for something exciting each day to keep his team sharp and Apollo 13 may have been a welcome diversion, albeit a bit much. Skylab was the ultimate boredom because it had no mission but to go round and round the Earth. The ground team had to monitor every minute of it, so the smart people left. The ISS is probably similar.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | July 30, 2011 4:36 PM    Report this comment

On the day of the last launch I sent this to all my colleagues. Thought it would have a place being repeated here.

Subject: We should all be thankful - T minus 9 minutes.

In about 9 minutes an era spanning 30 years will come to a close with the launch of the last space shuttle Atlantis. What is most important about this is the shuttle program and the US space program is much more than an incredible technological achievement that we have come to take for granted. Rather, it is symbolic of what human beings can achieve and in particular the unprecedented imagination, ambition, drive, commitment, talent, sacrifice and courage of the American’s (and others from many nations) and their families, who participated in the remarkable achievements over the last 40 years. I was honored to witness the last launch in April and meet a bunch of the people of who have been to space and returned safely to the earth. Their almost child-like excitement is inspiring. What should be remembered about all this is that it has been all done in our lifetimes and is absolute proof that anything is possible if you want it bad enough. If we can simply absorb just a tiny fraction of what these people have just imagine what we can all achieve in our lives.

God Speed Atlantis.

Jeff Owen

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