Sunday 15 December 2019

'It's like saying goodbye to a friend ... '

Despite a storied history and all the hype, the space shuttle has achieved very little, writes Gerard De Groot

So THE party's over. Yesterday at 10.56am GMT, the shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, bringing to an end NASA's 30-year experiment in reusable spacecraft. "It's been an incredible ride," said pilot Chris Ferguson. He feigned optimism, but couldn't explain what happens next. "It's a little sad because we're saying goodbye to an old friend."

The shuttle was indeed an old friend. It brings to mind that dysfunctional pal most of us have -- the handsome, carefree guy who can't hold down a job, but manages to camouflage his inadequacies with style and bravado. In the same way, NASA yesterday Tweeted lots of impressive numbers about Atlantis (33 flights, 4,848 orbits and 125,935,769 miles), but woefully failed to explain what had been achieved.

The shuttle story should really be titled 'Lost in Space'. About $210bn (€146bn) went towards a programme born of fantasy. The story came to an end because the American government finally accepted what experts realised at the beginning: the shuttle is an expensive and complicated way to provide what should be a cheap and simple service.

The shuttle arose from a dilemma. After Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, NASA needed something new to sustain space enthusiasm. Mars seemed the next step. But a ship capable of going there could not simply be placed on top of a Saturn V rocket and blasted skyward. A huge craft would have to be constructed in orbit. That effort would be wasteful, costly and time-consuming. A reusable space ferry seemed the answer.

From this tiny seed of fantasy, the shuttle grew. NASA loved the idea because it kept the manned space adventure alive. Richard Nixon liked it for similar reasons. The then president wanted to cut NASA's budget but worried about surrendering space spectaculars to the Soviets.

Americans, however, were growing tired of cosmic adventures. Just after Armstrong's small step, a 'Newsweek' poll found that 56pc wanted Nasa's budget cut, while only 10pc wanted it increased. Playing to the galleries, Nixon insisted that "space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities". His aide John Ehrlichman bluntly told NASA: "There is no money."

But shuttles don't come cheap. The trouble is people -- an unmanned disposable rocket is always cheaper. Keen to make the shuttle seem like a bargain, NASA exaggerated the importance of man in the equation, and inflated the frequency of missions in order to create an economy of scale. Thus, 779 launches between 1978 and 1991 were promised. That made the total cost $50bn, or $16bn cheaper than the same number of flights with expendable rockets.

Critics asked why so many missions were necessary if there were no concrete plans to go to Mars. NASA replied that worthwhile projects in space would increase exponentially and that surplus cargo room could be sold to private companies, thus reducing the cost.

Congress, however, remained sceptical. In order to gain congressional approval, NASA revised its plans, cutting the initial cost from $14bn to $5.15bn. "That was one of the greatest mistakes," an agency expert later admitted.

Reducing the cost adversely affected reusability and, therefore, profitability. While the craft itself was cheaper, each mission became more expensive. Out went the basic premise that a shuttle would cost less than a disposable rocket, on which the whole house of cards rested. What resulted was a badly designed and very dangerous craft. Two shuttles have been lost and 14 crew members killed. By 1993, a single launch cost $547m, $180m more than NASA had projected. The complexity of the operation meant that, instead of 779 launches by 1992, NASA managed just 133 by 2011.

"Apollo was a matter of going to the moon and building whatever technology could get us there," writes the space historian Walter McDougall. "The shuttle was a matter of building a technology and going wherever it could take us."

But where did it take us? After 133 missions, thousand of orbits and millions of miles, our old friend the shuttle has taken us back to where we began 30 years ago. Despite all the excitement, drama and tragedy, we're no nearer an answer about what to do in space. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Gerard De Groot is the author of 'Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest', published by Jonathan Cape

Irish Independent

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