Scratch That

Posted: July 25, 2011 in History, Idealism

“So, Timmy, tell me what you want to be when you grow up.”

“Gee whiz, Mr. Principal, maybe I’ll be a race car driver, or a fireman, or even … [pie-eyed inhalation] … an astronaut!”

Well, scratch that last one from the list. The last space shuttle has been retired. Does that mean manned space flight has also ended? I doubt it. The current crew of the International Space Station can’t just be stranded in orbit. But considering that it’s now mostly a Russian effort using rocket ships rather than space shuttles, change astronaut to cosmonaut and maybe kids still have license to dream.

The end of the shuttle program closes a troublesome though extended chapter in U.S. space flight. A little wistful emotion is hard to avoid, but even harder is an honest assessment of the failure of the program. Such an assessment has appeared in Discover, written by Amos Zeeberg:

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. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

there may well be no way NASA could have known that the shuttle would flop back in the ’70s when it was being planned and built, or possibly even while it was flying in the early ’80s, before its bubble of innocence was pricked by disaster. But it would soon become clear to anyone that the shuttle program was deeply troubled — at least, to anyone who bothered to look.

The article wags its finger not only at the public for its complicity and/or shared responsibility in this escapade (as with all others — we never learn) but also at the bureaucracies that couldn’t admit their own failures, denying and covering them up for decades while they were plainly obvious “to anyone who bothered to look,” as the article says. Yet the author recognizes that the space program represents something more than just hurling men and technology into orbit, and the title of the article, “How to Avoid Repeating the Debacle That Was the Space Shuttle,” suggests hope for continued American presence in space under a renewed program. Perhaps if the author had fully adopted his own recommendations — to abandon fantasy and judge projects according to reality — he would have grounded his hopes right here, on the ground, rather than still being starstruck.

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