Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shuttle Retirement

USA Today posted a very good summary article on the Space Shuttle program and its wrap-up, that lines up with many of my thoughts on the subject.  (Unfortunately, the URL seems to have some very frustrating timeout features that make it difficult to read the entire article.  I had to click on "Share this" in order to keep the story up long enough to read.)

I will start by saying that I believe the space shuttle launch vehicle is an engineering marvel, an extraordinary vehicle which has done a tremendous job the past 30 years.  It is quite likely that without the space shuttle, I would not be where I am today.  But I've written about that elsewhere (if my facts are confused, I was very young when it happened).

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report , Chapter 1, summarizes a history of the space shuttle's design. The extended cargo bay, the delta-wing design, the politically-imposed cost tradeoffs that were penny-wise and pound-foolish.

During the 2008 election, I heard many of the old arguments, the old stereotypes that Democrats would oppose space funding while Republicans would boost it. The truth as I've seen it thus far, is that there are both supporters and opponents to the space program, in both (all?) U.S. political parties.

The Space Shuttle is an engineering marvel. But with 30 years of history, especially in light of the Columbia accident, we have learned that mounting a human-rated vehicle to the side of a rocket, is a bad design. The vehicle is just too vulnerable to foam, ice, loose bolts, or anything else that might fall onto it. Better to have the crewed vehicle above it all, as was done on Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and is still done on the Soyuz capsules. And so, with sadness, I support space shuttle retirement.

That said, there is one thing that I think George W. Bush got right. That was the Vision for Space Exploration. I hinted, in the STEM Outreach post, that I do believe a lunar outpost is the next logical step in a sustainable space program.

I've alluded to S.M. Stirling's novels of the Change in previous posts. He actually began by writing the mirror-universe story, a time-travel piece in which Nantucket Island goes back in time to the Bronze Age: Island in the Sea of Time and sequels. In this second series, Stirling references a modern military saying: "Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics."

The reason I believe in continuing the International Space Station, and extending to a lunar outpost, is so that we can continue learning to manage the logistics problems of running a space outpost.

Now, I have not studied the Constellation program in detail. I have, however, had the benefit of listening to both Norman Augustine and Dr. Michael Griffin speak about the recent developments in human spaceflight. My takeaway from that is that both gentlemen are highly intelligent people, each with considered opinions of what they think we should do. That their opinions appear to differ does not mean that one is wrong and the other is right.

Two years ago, in a graduate engineering course, my team analyzed a logistics problem for Constellation. It was one of those concepts that seems expensive in the short-term, but saves money in the long-term, and I have to wonder whether this short-term expense influenced the Augustine Report.

The current state of the human spaceflight programs has affected many, many people.  Many of my friends. And it still may affect me. I am no fan of layoffs, having watched my parents go through a period of many layoffs and career changes. But I hold on to hope that this change will bring us through to a brighter tomorrow.