Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, July 21, 2011

End of an Era

After 135 missions and 30 years, the space shuttle program finally comes to a close. Atlantis is safely home, and no more crews will take the risk of flying in the world's most complex machine, which too often showed Americans how fragile it could be.

For the last three decades, the space shuttle has given America a manned presence in space. That in itself should be applauded as a remarkable achievement, as only Russia and China have a similar capability. Yet if that was the only goal of the shuttle program, the vehicle would be horribly inefficient for the task. NASA could have just as easily kept the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn IB launcher in production, launched a few crews per year, and maintained the prestige of the nation. So why the shuttle?

After NASA had succeeded in landing humans on the moon, they realized that they couldn't keep on throwing used rocket stages into the ocean forever. It was getting too expensive. The space shuttle (approved by President Nixon just as Apollo 17 was preparing to leave the moon forever,) became NASA's post-Apollo goal. They promised to fly the shuttle every two weeks, and spaceflight would become routine.

Well, such is the delusion of hubris. The shuttle averaged 4.5 flights per year (or 5.4 flights per year, ignoring the five years that the shuttle was grounded following the losses of Challenger & Columbia and their crews.) As a maintenance-hungry spacecraft that required a standing army of thousands, the shuttle realized little (if any) cost-savings over the old throwaway rockets and capsules. Certainly there existed better approaches to building a spacecraft besides the throwaway external tank, solid rocket boosters, and heavy winged orbiter (which got really hot on re-entry and needed a very fragile heat-shield to return from orbit.)

And yet the shuttle had its redeeming values. Unlike the expendable Apollo-Saturn system, the shuttle was a platform for construction in space. The tools and techniques had never been attempted before, and they were all learned during the course of the shuttle program. The early missions often focused on retrieving and repairing satellites in space, with repairing the Hubble Space Telescope finally becoming a frequent objective for shuttle missions. In the second half of the shuttle's life, it became a platform for servicing the Mir and International Space Stations. The standing armies who made the shuttle work over the last several decades should feel great pride in knowing that they laid the foundations for building future settlements in space.

Beyond the shuttle's value in building our future in space, it represents a force that's far more powerful and beneficial to society. It's akin to Christopher Nolan's vision of "Batman." The Caped Crusader is more than just the sum of his parts as industrialist Bruce Wayne and vigilante-hero Batman. While Batman fights the crime that plagues Gotham City, his power is multiplied by everybody he inspires to take up his mantle and defend Gotham. The shuttle has been a powerful symbol of what people can achieve by mastering science and mathematics.

When I was in kindergarten, our class learned about the space shuttle in preparation for Discovery's first return-to-flight mission. (Yes, I'm dating myself now.) It seemed really neat. I begged my dad to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we saw The Dream is Alive on the OmniMax. The following summer we built the Revell 1/144 scale Space Shuttle together. Most importantly, the shuttle was the initial spark that lit my fascination with studying science in grade school. It was a tangible goal that a lot of children could rally behind. And some friends I went to college with were actually able to live out that dream and work on the shuttle program.

In spite of all my fond memories, I'm not sad to see the shuttle retired. It served its purpose, and now it can move aside to make way for safer and more cost-effective methods of manned spaceflight. As Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight, "Batman knows he's not going to be doing this forever." Every symbol steps aside to make room for its heirs. In a few years time, the SpaceX Dragon-Falcon system will be inspiring the next generation of children to study science and math in school. Yet with a wistful wave it's appropriate to wish the orbiters goodbye, and extend thanks to everybody who kept them flying for so long.