In defense of the Shuttle

July 22, 2011 - Reading time: 10 minutes

Historical note - this was perhaps not my most coherent or eloquent blog post, but I was pretty angry.  I'm not editing it, but I will revise history a bit to say that I haven't regarded Phil Plait as a reasonable person for many years.

OK fine I edited it, but only slightly.  It's been almost 20 years now; I think my writing has improved.

Amos Zeeberg wrote an essay published at Discover Magazine that takes a critical view of the Space Shuttle.

It's probably obvious that I'm a big fan of the Shuttle program.  And in these blinkered times, it's not really unusual to see such one-sided criticism in places that would normally be forums for reasonable discussion.  But it is a bit disheartening to see people like Phil Plait, who normally strikes me as a smart and reasonable person, refer to such an article as "fair."  So I feel compelled to respond to some of the less reasonable things that Amos says:

Now that Atlantis is safely on the ground and astronauts will never again face the risk of flying in a space shuttle, maybe we can at last take a clear-eyed look at this disappointing episode in our nation's history.

Well, he starts out swinging.  At least we know what his view on the matter is.  He seems to feel that space travel is perfectly safe in other vehicles.  He ignores, for example, the Soyuz program's two missions that ended in loss of crew: Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971).  So the Soyuz program has lost 2 out of 110 missions and the Shuttle program lost 2 out of 135.  As far as space vehicles go, the Shuttle fleet isn't really out of the ordinary.

But this also brings up a more philosophical point: exploration has always been a dangerous matter and people have always died in those efforts.  If we choose not to explore space because it's risky, we fail.  As for disappointment, that single notion leads me to not take anything this guy says seriously.  To call the program a disappointment completely ignores the scientific and technological advances that came out of the Shuttle program.  Plenty of people have been discussing those lately.  I mentioned it briefly here.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year.

Here he develops his own set of criteria and then dismisses the program as a failure based on it not living up to those criteria.  Yes, the Shuttle fleet did not fly as often as was originally promised.  Yes, it cost more than was originally promised.  A lot has been said about the costs and it's likely that the original cost estimates were overly optimistic with the goal of getting the program funded at all.  As for the number of launches, though it didn't launch as many times as Amos would have liked, it did launch 135 times over 31 years for an average of just over 4 launches/year (including the couple of years that were skipped after the losses of Challenger and Columbia).  Compare that to just 110 Soyuz launches over 45 years, just under 2.5 launches/year.  The Orbiters also fit more than double the crew as a Soyuz, so far more people have flown in Shuttles as well (852 vs 258: >3 times as many people).  In the last decade, there were 28 Shuttle launches and 24 Soyuz launches.  And again, the Shuttle program had other goals that are harder to quantify: a return on investment with scientific and technological achievement.  Oh, but we're ignoring those points.

The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

Again ignoring the competition, which (by the same test) fares worse.  That is not to be flippant about the deaths of Shuttle crews, only to point out that it's no MORE dangerous than other crewed spacecraft.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the project was doomed for a variety of reasons, including the challenging reusable spaceplane design and the huge range of often conflicting demands on the craft.

The Shuttle Orbiter was a more complex spacecraft than any other.  But the "huge range of often conflicting demands" was made possible by that complexity.  The Shuttle Orbiter made many things possible that are still not possible with any other spacecraft, existing or in development.  So rather than "dooming" the project, these demands were making use of available features.  If NASA had decided, for example, not to use the Orbiter's airlock to allow multiple crew members to perform EVAs while other crew members were in a shirt-sleeve environment, that would have been a failure.  Oh, that's something that no other current spacecraft can do (other than the ISS, of course).

Tellingly, the U.S. space program is abandoning spaceplanes and going back to Apollo-style rockets. The Russians have always relied on cheaper and more reliable disposable rockets; China plans to do the same.

My personal view (which I don't present as fact, unlike Amos) is that going back to a capsule design is a step backwards; it is a demonstration of uncreative simple-mindedness and lack of vision.  Have we abandoned the quest for innovation that drives us to do more than just copying others?

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch.

Actually (I'm being pedantic here) the "ship" didn't explode.

More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure.

Anyone who claims to speak authoritatively about the Challenger disaster should read Diane Vaughan's The Challenger Launch Decision.  In it we learn that the Feynman's frequently-quoted conclusions were coached, based on incomplete information, and not really fair.  Amos goes on to quote reliability statistics, which is always a fool's errand (and, by his own argument, not the "tests that matter").

So it was clear, as far back as 1986, that the shuttle was an objective failure judged by its own goals.

No, the Shuttle program was a failure judged by your standards.  Let's keep that straight.

The shuttle also failed a more basic, primal test: it's just not that cool.

This is clearly a subjective argument, but I completely disagree here and I would guess that most school children would as well.  How would you compare the "coolness" of the Shuttle to that of a capsule, which crams its occupants into a tiny, undignified box while orbiting the planet in boring stillness?  What of the graceful acrobatics of the Orbiter in space, and its gliding return?  The Shuttle's remote manipulator is pretty cool as well.  Soyuz capsules are fitted with a firearm so that returning crews can defend themselves against bears after untangling themselves from its parachutes.  How is that cooler?  He points out that the purpose of putting humans into space is to explore.  While the Orbiter could not leave Earth orbit, it does enable exploration by means of probes and telescopes.  It allowed us to explore Earth as well, by creating (at the time) the most accurate and detailed maps of the Earth's surface to date.  It enabled the creation of the ISS, which serves as a learning platform so that we can learn how to design missions and hardware suitable for long-term crewed missions (I'm sure Amos feels this is a waste too).

Ask anybody who was never tempted to go to Space Camp what the shuttle's accomplished since fixing the Hubble in 1993.

Willful ignorance does not make a convincing argument.

Perhaps worst of all, the shuttle not only failed its own mission but prevented NASA from doing much else.

Politics and money prevented NASA from doing much else.  The Shuttle program was expensive, but a significant portion of the expense was the waste inherent in any government program.  NASA could have used the Shuttle's capabilities to construct and launch a true spacecraft (one that stays in space) for planetary exploration.  They didn't.  That is a failure, but it's a failure of NASA and the public (as Amos alludes to in the beginning) - not of the Shuttle program.

Instead, we'll have to bum rides on the old, cheap, and dependable Russian Soyuz, which is galling not only because it highlights what a flop the shuttle was, but also because the space program still has an anachronistic whiff of the Cold War about it.

The Soyuz program may be "old" but the Soyuz craft have undergone several major revisions.  More than the Shuttle program, but that's because the Soviet and post-Soviet governments have cared to spend resources to improve it.  As for "dependable" - shall I bring up statistics again?  Maybe you could do a little basic research before you call the Soyuz program dependable.

OK, so Amos has clearly constructed an opinion piece, and everyone is entitled to their opinions (even ill-informed ones).  But it's extremely disappointing to see such a poorly researched, one-sided essay posted on Discover.  We should always welcome dissenting opinions and consider all rational arguments, but this sort of essay does not belong in a publication aimed at an intelligent audience.

All Good Things

July 20, 2011 - Reading time: 9 minutes

After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, Robert Crippen gave a moving eulogy that was as much about the Orbiter as it was about the crew.  In the process, he revealed a truth that you won't learn in school: engineering isn't just about cobbling something together from a collection of pieces and clever ideas - it's art; it's creation.  For many, it's creation in a profound sense: an engineer designing a spacecraft or other complex engine puts blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into their project - their creation.

When Crippen spoke at the Columbia memorial service held at the Kennedy Space Center, he told a moving story of the final mission.  Columbia "struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home once again.  She wasn't successful. [...] She, along with the Crew, had her life snuffed out while in her prime."  Columbia wasn't a piece of equipment used by astronauts to do their jobs; she was another one of the crew, struggling against an injury she would eventually succumb to.

Columbia as he described her was not a machine with 2.5 million parts - she was a being, with a heart, a soul, and a desire to escort her occupants safely and comfortably on their shared mission.  The Space Shuttles are beloved members of a team of thousands, who dedicate their lives to the awesome feat of lifting humanity from the surface of the planet and bringing them safely back.  And like the human team members, each spaceship has her own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, failings, and triumphs - each has her own personality that is endearing to her friends, if baffling to outsiders.  Sounds a bit like you and me.

Crippen wasn't the only one to become attached to a mechanical thing.  If you talk to Steven Squyres about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, you'd think he was talking about his own children.  "Spirit is our firstborn. [...] Opportunity is not as quirky ... Spirit was always our 'problem child.'"  Many news articles about Spirit's recent demise read like eulogies for any human: "The cause of death appears to be hypothermia [...] Spirit lived a long, full and extremely productive life."  The rover had a face and a body and a perpetually curious pose that inspired many to imagine its soul.  An official eulogy for Spirit was given this month by John Callas, the manager of the Mars Exploration Project.  He described a lifetime of struggles for the rover, who toiled for our sake: "Spirit escaped the volcanic plains of Gusev Crater, mountaineer-ed up the Columbia Hills, survived three cold, dark Martian winters and two rover-killing dust storms, and surmounted debilitating hardware malfunctions.  But out of this adversity, she made the most striking scientific discoveries that have forever changed our understanding of the Red Planet."

John Callas said something else profound in the eulogy: "let's also remember that Spirit's great accomplishments did not come at the expense of some vanquished foe or by outscoring some opponent.  Spirit did this, we did this - to explore, to discover, to learn - for the benefit of all humankind.  In that respect, these rovers represent the highest aspiration of our species."

This brings me back to the Shuttles, and what we lose after Atlantis lands in a few hours.  The Shuttle fleet served us in many ways - it was a vital tool for constructing the International Space Station; it made science instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope possible; it was itself a platform for scientific research; it was even a vehicle of diplomacy.  Its use and development resulted in hundreds of spinoffs that we unwittingly take for granted.

The Shuttle's grace and capability also inspired an entire generation.  This was not our parents' lump of a space capsule, confining its crew in a single cramped compartment.  The best efforts of the previous decades brought forth geometric shapes that orbited the earth in uninspired stillness and landed in a tangle of parachutes to be fished out of the ocean or dragged off an icy field.  With the Orbiters we tamed complexity and created something to be proud of.  In addition to their unmatched capabilities as spacecraft, in each mission the Orbiter would put on a show as it performed graceful acrobatics in space and then landed on its feet, panting and steaming but ready to take the trip again.  The Shuttle fleet was a symbol of American ingenuity and creativity, and even as its missions started to seem mundane its form became familiar as what a spacecraft of the future might look like.

Though they were sometimes used as tools for military or diplomatic use, the Shuttles were at their core vehicles of science and exploration.  They too represented humanity's ideals and aspirations - they were built to help us understand our planet, our bodies, the cosmos, and our relationship with it.  With the Orbiters we mapped parts of the Earth that were previously unmappable; we launched telescopes and probes to explore our solar system and they universe beyond it; we demonstrated true human cooperation by assembling an International Space Station.  We did all this not as contestants in a race, but as people engaged in the responsible application of the technological and scientific resources of our country.  The Shuttles demonstrated to the world that we could do anything, but we chose to do good.

The Orbiters themselves were a bit needy.  Each one required an army of engineers, technicians, and specialists for maintenance, diagnosis, and repair before and after each flight.  With unique personalities came unique problems, and their vast complexity was sometimes aggravating and expensive.  Lack of understanding and respect for this complexity twice led to tragedy, but (as engineering disasters always do) each tragedy led to better understanding, further innovation, and safer vehicles.  But the loss of Columbia in 2003 was too much to bear for a country at war that was shrinking from risk and wary of open-ended investment, and though the Shuttles flew for years after a short period of introspection, political and social pressures at the time ultimately led to today's scheduled retirement of the fleet.

When Atlantis lands it will not be the end of human spaceflight, in America or anywhere else.  Several corporations in this country are creating spacecraft of their own to take satellites, cargo, and crews to Earth orbit.  NASA is tasked (perhaps unconvincingly) with creating a new crewed spacecraft for exploration.  Russia is maintaining its ability to launch cargo and crew, China has a budding human spaceflight program, and other countries are well on their way to achieving human spaceflight with their own craft.  As the American west was won, Earth orbit has ceased to be a frontier and is becoming a place of expansion, enterprise, and opportunity.

When the last Orbiter is retired an important and storied program will come to an end.  Thousands of people have dedicated their careers to the Shuttle program; they've watched it through tragedy and triumph, fault and accomplishment; they have developed intense feelings and connections to co-workers, communities, and the vehicles under their care.  Many will lose their jobs at a time when the country's economy is already struggling.  America will lose a decades-old symbol of pride and accomplishment that has not been surpassed (or even successfully imitated) by any other country.  But as heartbreaking as this is, all things must come to an end and we must accept that and move on.

That's what we're supposed to say, right?  There are even those who are glad to see the Shuttles go; people who feel that they kept us tethered to Earth orbit when we could have been exploring far beyond it.  But it's hard not to feel a little empty right now.  To dismiss the Shuttle program is to overlook decades of invention, accomplishment, and discovery.  We are losing our best and brightest stars - they will be relegated to dusty museums, reminders of past glory for our divided country.

Sometimes the story doesn't have a happy ending.  For those who worked to build, maintain, and operate the fleet, dear friends are being taken away before their time, and there is real pain that outsiders fail to understand or appreciate.  For those who have been inspired by the Shuttles, it is a profound loss because there is nothing so pure to replace it.  Now we are left waiting for our political class to unite around a plan for NASA that provides appropriate vision and adequate funding for a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle program, so that we may create, explore, and be inspired again.

Trying this again

February 22, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

I'm leaving for Florida in the morning to watch STS-133.  I've got a good feeling about it this time ...

FSMspeed, Atlantis

May 14, 2010 - Reading time: 2 minutes

Historical note: this was a post that I started and never finished. That's why there are so many [things] that seem like they are incomplete.  I never posted this but the end of the Shuttle program was a big deal for me so I'm posting it now.

Atlantis is back in space, for its final voyage.  Every Shuttle mission these days seems to have more meaning, as we approach the end of the Shuttle program and the orbiters are flying their final missions.  Atlantis has had a short but distinguished career; it has helped us explore the solar system [Magellan], view the universe [Hubble], and [other thing].  It has served as a vehicle of diplomacy [Shuttle-Mir], and brought [x] modules and other ingredients for life to the International Space Station.

And soon, it will be decommissioned.

For someone in my generation, it is truly the end of an era.  Our parents may have Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but we grew up with the Shuttle - the most complex and capable vehicle ever designed, and one whose vast capabilities no government or corporation has even considered duplicating.

Against this backdrop, a few of us are working on creating some sort of successor.  The shape and capabilities of that successor were decided for us by men who looked to the past for inspiration and economy.  The Constellation had lofty goals, but the vehicles chosen to reach those goals are lacking in many ways.

From a technical standpoint, the vehicles were never intended to be great.  Launched by rockets vaguely reminiscent of the Space Transportation System (why not just use the STS?), the Orion capsule and Altair lander were going to face a rougher ride to orbit of any spacecraft ever designed.  Then once in space, we find that NASA has reversed the trend of making larger, more comfortable vehicles, and instead made Orion a cramped, monolithic space with no privacy; no place for science; [no other thing].  The Altair lander would barely be bigger from the crew's perspective.  The "architecture" neglected science, crew health care systems, living quarters, privacy, and []; it was designed to re-use as much as possible from existing aircraft or the intellectual property of large [lockmart] and incompetent [honeywell] contractors in order to reduce development time and cost and just get something into space quickly.  Guess what: that wasn't going to happen; all of those pieces don't fit together cleanly and are not capable of doing what we need in a true vehicle of exploration.

[Rant!  Rant!  Rant!  I need to come back to this later]