Monday, July 25, 2005

 

Like NASA, Shuttle Fleet Is Old, Obsolete

Discovery's launch is unduly dangerous and a terrible wase of money

In comments posted last week, Steven Den Beste (scroll to 20050713) had this to say about Discovery's impending launch:
I noticed in the news that NASA is on the final runup to the first shuttle launch since Columbia was destroyed. Some space fans are eager about this, I suspect. Myself, my reaction to it was, give it up already. The Shuttle is 35 year old technology, and all the remaining orbiters are at or near end-of-operational-life. Old equipment has a higher rate of operational failure; that's a fact of life. Trying to maintain them and keep them flying at this point is increasingly risky, and there's really nothing that the shuttle makes possible that I think is worth the risk of 7 good crew, even if they themselves are willing to take the chance. We need a new system, and development on it should have started ten years ago, if not fifteen. To try to keep the remnants of the shuttle fleet flying at this point is money down a rat hole, and it's going to cost more lives before they finally give up. Are we going to keep flying them until all five of them are destroyed due to operational failure?

By the way, I think the International Space Station was a crummy idea, too, and I think it should be scrapped. There's nothing being done there that can't be done cheaper, easier and safer using robotic orbiters. I find no romance in the idea of "humans in space"; I'm a practical man, and believe we should use machines when they're a better choice, and men only when machines can't do the job. (Which is why I have long thought that making plans for a manned mission to Mars at this point is utter stupidity.)
I couldn't agree more.

NASA is perhaps the most obnoxious major federal agency. It is a bloated bureacuracy with an expensive, obsolete, politically oriented infrastructure - the ultimate pork-barrel project. One way or another, it is constantly whining and pleading for more money, going so far as to occasionally produce blatent propaganda to aid its cause. Indeed, it has its own 24-hour propaganda channel.

From its inception, the whole shuttle program has been a colossal waste of money:
The shuttle's real problems stem from the system that produced it and managed it from day one. In Lyndon Johnson's eyes, NASA was primarily the Marshall Plan for the Confederacy. The shuttle was a political creature from the beginning, and the complex set of compromises and tradeoffs needed to bring it into being assured that it would forever be too expensive to fly often enough, or build enough of, to get the proper experience base to really understand reusable space flight. The total number of takeoff-landing cycles flown by the shuttle fleet even now is smaller than that typically flown by a new airliner prototype. In some ways, we still cannot say that anything that has happened with the shuttle fleet is statistically significant.
The remaining shuttle fleet belongs at the National Air and Space Museum. The entire shuttle infrastructure should be absorbed into the military or turned over to the private sector, the sooner the better. Too bad if NASA loses its best salesmen, the astronauts. Other than for milirary purposes, our government shouldn't be sending men routinely into space anymore. The private sector has that capability now, and we should develop it to the fullest extent possible, with government aid if necessary:
NASA's problem hasn't been too much vision, even for near-earth activities, but much too little. But it's a job not just for NASA--to create that infrastructure, we will have to set new policies in place that harness private enterprise, just as we did with the railroads in the 19th Century. That is the policy challenge that will come out of the latest setback--to begin to tame the harsh wilderness only two hundred miles above our heads.
Robots are perfectly capable of handling most exploration and experimentation in space anyway. With budgets equal to a single shuttle launch, NASA should be devising and launching more missions like Cassini, the Mars Rover, ect. and little else. But first and foremost, it should be put out of both the shuttle launching and self-promotion businesses all together.

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