The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

shuttle launch
The shuttle promised to radically reduce the cost of space access, but failed: does that make the shuttle program as a whole a failure? (credit: NASA)

Were the shuttle and ISS mistakes?

Michael Griffin made news a few weeks ago when in an interview with USA Today he was quoted as calling the shuttle and the ISS mistakes. The clarifications that followed from Michael Griffin and NASA definitely did not get the same attention in the media. Regardless of whether or not Michael Griffin was correctly quoted still begs the question, “Were the shuttle and the ISS mistakes?” I have to admit that, when the architecture for returning to the Moon was unveiled, the thought that the last three decades of human spaceflight were a visionless mistake crossed my mind. The phrase “Apollo on steroids” just emphasized the thought that Apollo could have been put on steroids in the 70s and 80s.

In judging if something was worth it or not, one technique is to put together a balance sheet of the pros and cons. The value of the items on each side of the sheet are dependent upon individual subjective valuations. Some may even disagree as to which side of the sheet an item should go. Part of the judgment should be what else could have or should have been done with the money and the opportunity. The projects also need to be judged as to what was possible when they were started and not just by the hindsight of history. The people who made the decisions on the shuttle and the ISS did not have the advantage of knowing what we know now.

The shuttle was sold to Congress and the American public as the “Holy Grail” for reducing the costs of getting to and from orbit. It was to be the truck that would carry into orbit pieces of a vision to be defined later.

I’m going to start with a big negative and get it out of the way. Two of the 114 shuttle missions ended in catastrophe with the loss of fourteen people. Losing fourteen people who were very important to their families and friends in addition to being important to the whole human race in such an unexpected way is horrible and tragic. Such losses, though, are also part of life. A few days ago as I was sitting at my desk at the end of the day, I heard several sirens from police cars racing past my building. I looked out the window to see a freight train at a dead stop at a street crossing a couple hundred meters away. A man walking his dog lost control of his pet; chasing after it, he was killed instantly on the crossing. I’m sure he was as important to his family and friends as the fallen astronauts were. My point is that as bad as the deaths of fourteen astronauts are, sudden unexpected deaths happen all the time. It just doesn’t get the notoriety that shuttle accidents do. Life must and does go on.

I remember the first time I read about the shuttle. It was started at another difficult time in the space program. The Apollo program was ending. After Skylab and the Apollo Soyuz Test Project there was a long moratorium in US manned spaceflight until the shuttle flew. Political support for space expenditures was waning with the high costs of a painful war and growing expenditures in other government agencies. The television networks only gave minor coverage to Apollo 13 until the explosion onboard. The space program was not on the top of many people’s political agenda.

The shuttle was sold to Congress and the American public as the “Holy Grail” for reducing the costs of getting to and from orbit. It was to be the truck that would carry into orbit pieces of a vision to be defined later. It was to answer the demand from NASA, DOD, and private industry for launch, servicing, and retrieval of orbiting payloads. The servicing and retrieval capability was an interesting idea considering most satellites that could potentially use this service were in orbits far beyond the shuttle’s reach and the fact that a servicing mission would cost far more than the payload to be serviced. Plans for tugs to breach the difference in orbits never amounted to anything. The new plans go back and start up where Apollo left off. If this is a continuation of what was ended back in the 70s, what did we get for our money in the past three decades? To figure this out we also have to ask, “What was politically possible to get?” and “What was technically possible to get?”

The political side of what is possible is usually more important than what is technically possible. During the Carter Administration the shuttle was under development and was on the radar of very few people outside of the space community. During his presidency nothing new was going to get approved until the shuttle was flying. When Ronald Reagan became President human spaceflight gained prominence with the first shuttle flights, the Challenger accident, his proposal to build Space Station Freedom, and his push to build the National Aerospace Plane. Reagan was a strong believer in bold optimistic ideas. During the first President Bush’s term, a proposal to send humans to Mars died after no serious study of the problem. Human spaceflight trudged on with the shuttle and Freedom morphing slowly into the ISS.

I don’t know if the potential of the shuttle was truly believed by the people managing its development and promoting it to the country. I wasn’t there and was not privy to any private thoughts of the people who were there. Michael Griffin said the shuttle was too great a leap in technology for the time. That can be said in hindsight about any project that doesn’t meet initial expectations because of problems encountered when trying to stretch the state of the art. Sometimes attempts to leapfrog existing technology work out and the visionaries are hailed as geniuses. That is why R&D is always an interesting gamble.

I do not believe there is a clear-cut answer if the shuttle and the ISS were mistakes, but neither have been resounding successes.

The decade of the seventies, when the shuttle was started, has many parallels with our current national situation. The Arab oil embargo caused massive spikes in oil prices. The federal government was running high deficits. We were painfully extricating ourselves from a messy war. There were, however, a few key things messing with the economy and the national psyche that as of yet have no parallel in this decade. Inflation and interest rates were both through the roof. The Iran hostage crisis and incidents like the Mariel boatlift weakened the nation’s self-confidence and belief that things were going in the right direction. The poor planning for hurricanes and the resulting aftermath are having similar effects now. The space program was not at the top of the nation’s agenda and nor is it today.

The shuttle was sold as a solution that would provide frequent low-cost access to orbit for every size payload and mission type in the foreseeable future. The military, NASA, and commercial satellite operators all needed access to launch vehicles. Developing separate assets for the DOD and commercial users while the shuttle was under development would just not have been politically possible before the Challenger accident. In the beginning I’m sure there were people involved in the program that believed that they would be able to deliver on most, if not all, of the promises just as I’m sure that there were skeptics who were convinced of the other extreme. The same has likely been true for other large projects that have both succeeded and failed.

What are the pluses and minuses of the shuttle program? Like most large R&D projects the shuttle program pushed the state of the art in many areas of engineering including materials, reusable rocket engines, solid rocket boosters, etc. It has provided opportunities to partner with Russia and other countries on programs like Mir and the ISS. The value of strengthening international ties cannot be discounted. It launched and serviced the Hubble. It has launched components of and serviced the ISS. The whole space program and its accomplishments provide a very positive message about the United States to the rest of the world even where our reputation overall isn’t well appreciated at the moment. What it has not done, though, is provide safe, affordable, and reliable access to space.

The ISS program has morphed through several redesigns from its early incarnation as Space Station Freedom to its current troubled state. As Michael Griffin said, it is in the wrong orbit to use as a waystation for missions beyond Earth orbit. That is a problem I still believe can be remedied. It is in the right orbit to be serviced by the Soyuz during the recovery time since the Columbia disaster. The delays and redesigns, in part caused by bringing Russia into the partnership, has helped drive the cost of the ISS higher than its orbit. On the flip side, I do believe that if it is ever completed and fully crewed it will be producing significant amounts of first-class research in microgravity.

I wonder if in another thirty years people will be asking if the new Vision for Space Exploration was just another mistake. If it doesn’t become a key part of a vision for the nation as a whole, I believe it might.

I do not believe there is a clear-cut answer if the shuttle and the ISS were mistakes, but neither have been resounding successes. The fact that the question is being asked by people that favor a strong space program, after so much money was spent probably pushes the answer to the negative side of the balance sheet. Decisions on both programs were made on factors that included many that had nothing to do with technical issues, scientific merit, or economic value. Jobs in key congressional districts, politics, and international relations have also been key factors. Another problem has been that the space program is also not high on the national agenda. This is one reason thirty years have passed with no clear vision for the space program. If I had the final say on plans for human exploration, I would have made very different decisions. A replacement for the shuttle would already be in service, and the ISS would have been built in a better orbit.

I wonder if in another thirty years people will be asking if the new Vision for Space Exploration was just another mistake. If it doesn’t become a key part of a vision for the nation as a whole, I believe it might. The VSE needs strong political support to keep it from stalling in the face of all the other demands facing the country right now. When was the last time you’ve heard the President mention it? The nation needs a clear vision for R&D in space exploration and commercialization, energy, physics, biology, and all the other areas that contribute to keep us the leading economic force in the world. I urge readers to press politicians for their positions on these issues whenever they get a chance. The rest of the world is expanding their spending in these areas to be competitive. We need to do it more efficiently so we don’t spend huge amounts of money without clear goals and only achieving questionable results.