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Home / Brad Delong, Berkeley / Maciej Cegloski (2005): A Rocket To Nowhere: Weekend Reading

Maciej Cegloski (2005): A Rocket To Nowhere: Weekend Reading

Summary:
...Future archaeologists trying to understand what the Shuttle was for are going to have a mess on their hands. Why was such a powerful rocket used only to reach very low orbits, where air resistance and debris would limit the useful lifetime of a satellite to a few years? Why was there both a big cargo bay and a big crew compartment? What kind of missions would require people to assist in deploying a large payload? Why was the Shuttle intentionally crippled so that it could not land on autopilot? Why go through all the trouble to give the Shuttle large wings if it has no jet engines and the glide characteristics of a brick? Why build such complex, adjustable main engines and then rely on the equivalent of two giant firecrackers to provide most of the takeoff thrust? Why use a glass

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...Future archaeologists trying to understand what the Shuttle was for are going to have a mess on their hands. Why was such a powerful rocket used only to reach very low orbits, where air resistance and debris would limit the useful lifetime of a satellite to a few years? Why was there both a big cargo bay and a big crew compartment? What kind of missions would require people to assist in deploying a large payload? Why was the Shuttle intentionally crippled so that it could not land on autopilot? Why go through all the trouble to give the Shuttle large wings if it has no jet engines and the glide characteristics of a brick? Why build such complex, adjustable main engines and then rely on the equivalent of two giant firecrackers to provide most of the takeoff thrust? Why use a glass thermal protection system, rather than a low-tech ablative shield? And having chosen such a fragile method of heat protection, why on earth mount the orbiter on the side of the rocket, where things will fall on it during launch?

Taken on its own merits, the Shuttle gives the impression of a vehicle designed to be launched repeatedly to near-Earth orbit, tended by five to seven passengers with little concern for their personal safety, and requiring extravagant care and preparation before each flight, with an almost fetishistic emphasis on reuse. Clearly this primitive space plane must have been a sacred artifact, used in religious rituals to deliver sacrifice to a sky god....

We know that the Shuttle is the fruit of what was supposed to be a rational decision making process. That so much about the vehicle design is bizarre and confused is the direct result of the Shuttle's little-remembered role as a military vehicle during the Cold War. By the time Shuttle development began, it was clear that the original vision of a Shuttle as part of a larger space transportation system was far too costly and ambitious to receive Congressional support. So NASA concentrated on building only the first component of its vision, a reusable manned spacecraft that could reach low earth orbit. Since NASA assumed it would be able to fly Shuttle missions with a turnaround time as low as two weeks, this left the vexing question of what to do with all that spare launch capacity. The tiny commercial launch market was in no shape to supply such a wealth of satellites, so NASA turned to the one agency that had an abundance of things requiring shooting into space-the Air Force-and asked it to abandon its unmanned rocket programs, instead committing all future satellite launches to the Shuttle.

The Air Force was only too happy to agree, but at a crippling price. What the Air Force wanted to launch was spy satellites-lots of them, bulky telescopes with heavy mirrors, the bigger the better-and it wanted to launch them in an orbit over the Earth's poles, so they could snoop over the maximum amount of Red territory. This meant NASA had to go back to the drawing board, since polar orbits would require a heavier orbiter than the Shuttle design had anticipated, which in turn meant using a bigger rocket at launch, and dissipating more heat during re-entry.

Moreover, there was no way to launch a polar mission safely from Kennedy Space Center.... So the Air Force also demanded, and got, billions in funding to build a new Shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. And because some of the Air Force's military missions involved capturing a Soviet satellite on the sly and landing after one orbit, the Air Force demanded that the Shuttle be capable of gliding over a thousand miles cross-range during re-entry, so that it could catch up with the rapidly eastbound Air Force base underneath it. This meant bigger wings, which in turn meant more weight, an even more powerful rocket, and again a more complicated heat shield.

Most of the really wrong design decisions in the Shuttle system—the side-mounted orbiter, solid rocket boosters, lack of air-breathing engines, no escape system, fragile heat protection—were the direct fallout of this design phase, when tight budgets and onerous Air Force requirements forced engineers to improvise solutions to problems that had as much to do to do with the mechanics of Congressional funding as the mechanics of flight. In a pattern that would recur repeatedly in the years to come, NASA managers decided that they were better off making spending cuts on initial design even if they resulted in much higher operating costs over the lifetime of the program. To further cut costs, and keep the weight from growing prohibitive, the Shuttle became the first manned spacecraft to fly without any kind of crew escape system.... NASA also decided not to make the Shuttle capable of unmanned flight, so that the first test flight of the vehicle would have astronauts on board.... 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. At the same time, the Air Force proved unable to get the Vandenberg base ready for use, negating much of the reason for the extensive Shuttle redesign. After the Challenger explosion, the Vandenberg base was quietly mothballed. Not once did the Shuttle fly a mission to polar orbit. Having failed at its stated goal, the Shuttle program proved adept at finding changing rationales for its existence....

This period of Shuttle-as-cancer-cure found its apotheosis in the brilliantly cynical return of John Glenn to space. While legislators had been accelerated to orbital velocity before, Glenn was both a Senator and a sixties space hero, making him an ideal public relations cargo. Naturally, the slightest hint that the Senator had been launched into space for reasons other than the urgent demands of medical science was indignantly dismissed by the mission planners. At the now-usual cost of around a billion dollars ➅ , STS-95 spent ten days engaged in the following experiments:

  • Sent cockroaches up to see how microgravity would affect their growth at various stages of their life cycle
  • Studied a "space rose" to see what kinds of essential oils it would produce in weightless environment. (in a triumph of technology transfer, this was later developed into a perfume).
  • At the suggestion of elementary school children, monitored everyday objects such as soap, crayons, and string to see whether their inertial mass would change in a weightless environment.
  • Preliminary results suggest that Newton was right.
  • Monitored the growth of fish eggs and rice plants in space (orbital sushi?)
  • Tested new space appliances, including a space camcorder and space freezer
  • Checked to see whether melatonin would make the crew sleepy (it did not)

And of course, there was John Glenn, monitored inside and out, blood tested, urine sampled, entire organism analyzed for signs of accelerated aging. Close observation of the Senator suggested that there might not be any medical obstacles to launching the entire legislative branch into space, possibly the most encouraging scientific result of the mission. Along with these craggy summits of basic research, the astronauts performed a raft of prepared experiments in metallurgy, medicine, fluid mechanics, embryology, and solar wind detection, all of which had one thing in common - they were designed to minimize crew interaction, in most cases requiring the astronauts to do little more than flip a switch.

This brings up a delicate point about justifying manned missions with science. In order to make any straight-faced claims about being cost effective, you have to cart an awful lot of science with you into orbit, which in turns means you need to make the experiments as easy to operate as possible. But if the experiments are all automated, you remove the rationale for sending a manned mission in the first place. Apart from question-begging experiments on the physiology of space flight, there is little you can do to resolve this dilemma. In essence, each 'pure science' Shuttle science mission consists of several dozen automated experiments alongside an enormous, irrelevant, repeated experiment in keeping a group of primates alive and healthy outside the atmosphere....

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. This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade-on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft. There is no satisfactory answer for why all this commotion must take place in orbit. To the uneducated mind, it would seem we could accomplish our current manned space flight objectives more easily by not launching any astronauts into space at all-leaving the Shuttle and ISS on the ground would result in massive savings without the slighest impact on basic science, while also increasing mission safety by many orders of magnitude.... 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....

Meanwhile, while the Shuttle has been up on blocks, a wealth of unmanned probes has been doing exactly the kind of exploration NASA considers so important, except without the encumbrance of big hairless monkeys on board. And therein lies another awkward fact for NASA. While half the NASA budget gets eaten by the manned space program, the other half is quietly spent on true aerospace work and a variety of robotic probes of immense scientific value.... 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.... Sinking half the NASA budget into the Shuttle and ISS precludes the possibility of doing truly groundbreaking work on space flight.... The Apollo program showed how successful the agency could be when given a clear technical objective and the budget required to meet it. But the Shuttle program has shown the flip side of NASA, as rational goals detach from reality under constantly changing political and funding pressures. NASA has learned valuable bureaucratic lessons-it knows to spread its work over as many jurisdictions as possible, it has learned that chronic funding is always better than acute funding, however much money a one-time outlay might save in the long run, and it has demonstrated that ineffectual projects can be sustained indefinitely if cancelling them is sufficiently awkward....

The goal cannot be to have a safe space program-rocket science is going to remain difficult and risky. But we have the right to demand that the space program have some purpose beyond trying to keep its participants alive. NASA needs to take a lesson in courage from its astronauts, and demand either a proper, funded mandate for manned exploration, or close down the program. By NASA's own arguments, the commercial, technological and intellectual allure of manned space exploration are so great that it will not be a hard case to make. But even if the worst happens and the Shuttles are mothballed, with the the ISS left abandoned, the loss to science will have been negligible. That is the great tragedy of the current 'return to flight', and the sooner we force the agency to confront its failure, the greater our chances of salvaging a space program worth keeping out of the current mess...

Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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