February 06, 2003
Outer Space: After the Space Shuttle

Outer Space

Gregory Benford tries to move us beyond the space shuttle--that strange craft that was both the most expensive (at $300 million per mission) and the least reliable (one catastrophic loss of vehicle and crew for every sixty missions) system for getting stuff and people up to near-earth-orbit ever devised. The big question that NASA never talks about is: what are we doing dinking about with humans--instead of teleoperated robots--in near earth orbit anyway? What can people do in near-earth orbit that is worth doing that unmanned remote-controlled craft cannot? It never talks about it because it is a question that has no answer.

Once we decide to go to other planets the lightspeed lag dictates that we will need to send humans out into the Great Deep. As Benford writes, the medium-term goal is "Mars. Did life arise there, and does it persist beneath the bleak surface? No robot remotely within our capability can descend down a thermal vent or drill and find an answer. Only humans are qualified to do the science necessary, on the spot." But before we start going to Mars (and the other potentially very interesting places in the solar system), we need to learn about two things:

  1. How to make a closed biosphere work in zero gravity (as Benford writes, "the [current space] station recycles only urine... it is camping in space, not truly living there").
  2. Second, how to make centrifugal force serve as a substitute for Terran gravity (as Benford writes, "decades of trials show clearly that zero-g is very bad for us. The Russians who set the endurance records in space have never fully recovered. Going to Mars demands that crews arrive after the half-year journey able to walk, at least. No crew returning from space after half a year ever have, even for weeks afterward. So we must get more data, between one gravity and none. Mars has 0.38 g; how will we perform there? Nobody knows. Spinning a habitat at the other end of a cable, counter-balanced by a dead mass like a missile upper stage, is the obvious first way to try intermediate gravities. The International Space Station has tried very few innovations, and certainly nothing as fruitful as a centrifugal experiment").

The shuttle and the International Space Station are not helping us. They do remarkably little science--and, as far as I can see, next to none that could not be done by unmanned missions. Like vampires, they suck NASA's entire budget dry. And so we can't even begin to work on the biosphers and the low-gravity questions.


Beyond the Shuttle
By Gregory Benford 02/05/2003


A friend at NASA's Marshall Space flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama told me today that all his engineer friends were working on their resumes. After the Challenger disaster, NASA dithered for 2.5 years before using the shuttle again. How long this time?

Quite probably, a year--if ever. This second wreck calls into question the entire shuttle program. Voices already are calling for a wholly new approach. The shuttle has the worst safety record of any launch vehicle, and is the most expensive, costing half a billion dollars per mission.

And we now contemplate a war in Iraq that depends on our technical prowess. I doubt that Americans will be moved to doubt our military, just because an advanced spacecraft fell out of a clear blue sky. We are tougher than we may look--and more resolute. The country is reasonably united, and yet again the president has responded with the right sense of gravity. He does disaster well.

Still, it is a good time to reassess. Early results from the telemetry and the huge debris field suggest that the thermal tiles failed. One amateur observer saw something blowing off the shuttle as it passed over California, possibly red-hot tiles. We know that a piece of foam blew off the fuel tanks at launch, striking the shuttle's left wing, a location that seems implicated in the heating spike that the telemetry recorded just before the craft began to slew and tumble.

Reentry is a tricky negotiation between gravity and aerodynamics. Controlling descent angle is important to reduce mechanical and thermal stress on the spacecraft, and an error in the on-board computers can allow the angle to get so steep that the craft breaks apart. (Multiple computers should reduce the risk, but that has not saved computer-run aircraft like the SAAB 39 Gripen from the occasional crash.)

Whatever the fault, tiles or computers or human error, the crash occurred at what many engineers thought was the most dangerous portion of a shuttle's flight. This is not a fluke; the system was vulnerable, and it failed yet again.

Perhaps the only good thing about this disaster is that it will prompt NASA to rethink the design of manned spacecraft from first principles. Foremost is that the more complex a spacecraft is, the more things can go wrong.

The safest manned descent module was also the simplest: the Soviet "sharik" descent capsule, which was used by Vostok and Voskhod craft, and also in many unmanned missions since. It was just a sphere with the center of gravity on the side with the thickest ablative thermal shielding, so it was self-stabilizing. Even if the retrorockets failed to separate, it could re-enter safely. Simple ballistic craft that do not fly are also (relatively) simple.

With a spaceplane like the shuttle, however, you are not only committed to a complex shape, you are also committed to using brittle ceramic materials for thermal shielding. The first item on NASA's agenda will be to revisit the tiles issue.

The ceramic tiles not only make overhaul very time-consuming and expensive - specialists affix each tile by hand, managing to do a few per day, and there are thousands - they are also literally impossible to check for inner defects. Unlike metal components, you cannot test them for small cracks that may cause failure.

One way around this is to use many small ceramic tiles, so the spacecraft can survive losing individual tiles. But if several adjacent tiles are lost, it will cause catastrophic failure during reentry. Maybe that happened; it is consistent with what we know now (or are likely to know for several months).

A second line of defense is to have the crew in a detachable unit that can land safely. This would be straightforward in a ballistic craft, but with an aerodynamic spaceplane it is difficult to squeeze such a unit into the nose. On the B-58 bomber the crew had small individual pods that enabled them to eject safely at supersonic speeds, but the weight penalty ruled out this option for the shuttle.

Ideally, you need a descent module that can take a lot of punishment. But a big spaceplane would get impossibly heavy if it was stressed for this. This is another argument for small sixties-era crew capsules.

Ironically, the Soviet "Buran" shuttle could lift loads to orbit without any crew at all, and might make a viable alternative to the U.S. shuttle. But the only remaining craft got badly damaged when a corroded hangar roof fell down on it last year - a symbol of the Russian program's decay.

The safest manned spacecraft built was also among the cheapest and simplest. The lunar lander used pressurized tanks, eliminating the need for turbo pumps, and the fuel and oxidizer self-ignited when mixed, making the engine very reliable.

NASA considered mass-producing similar, simple rockets in the sixties as an option to make space flight cheaper. Political considerations favored the more spectacular spaceplane solution. To date, this decision has killed two shuttle crews and cost billions.

In the end, the next months will try NASA as never before. It has tried to convince its public that going into space is safe, when it is not. Once is an accident, twice is a defect.

The shuttle's justification these days has been its role in supporting a space station that now does little science. The station runs with the minimum crew of three, to save money while forgetting science. The Russian Soyez vehicle could cycle crews and probably will be used to bring down the three up there now.

The station program can limp along for a few years with two flights a year, to cycle crews every half year and not abandon the station entirely. A Russian Proton rocket can continue to boost the station up as its orbit decays from atmospheric friction, as we now do routinely.

This can go on until NASA can decide what to do. Its habit is not to be truly decisive, but now its back is to the wall. It must confront the big question:

What is the American destiny in space? The station is not a destination; it is a tool. But for what?

NASA has played up the station as "a stepping-stone to the planets" - but it cannot perform the two experiments we know must be done before any manned ventures beyond Low Earth Orbit begin.

These are, first, development of a true closed biosphere in low or zero gravity. The station recycles only urine; otherwise, it is camping in space, not truly living there.

Second, we must develop centrifugal gravity. Decades of trials show clearly that zero-g is very bad for us. The Russians who set the endurance records in space have never fully recovered. Going to Mars demands that crews arrive after the half-year journey able to walk, at least. No crew returning from space after half a year ever have, even for weeks afterward. So we must get more data, between one gravity and none. Mars has 0.38 g; how will we perform there? Nobody knows.

Spinning a habitat at the other end of a cable, counter-balanced by a dead mass like a missile upper stage, is the obvious first way to try intermediate gravities. The International Space Station has tried very few innovations, and certainly nothing as fruitful as a centrifugal experiment. Until a livelier spirit animates the official space program, the tough jobs of getting into orbit cheaply, and living there self-sufficiently, will probably have to be done by private interests who can angle a profit from it. But not right away.

This is an historic moment, one of great opportunity. NASA can either rise to the challenge and scrap the shuttle, or just muddle along. An intermediate path would use the shuttles on a reduced schedule, while developing a big booster capable of hauling up the big loads needed to build more onto the station. This would be cost-effective and smart.

The past Director of NASA said to me a few years ago that he thought the agency had about a decade to prove itself. Around 2010 the Baby Boomers will start to retire and the Federal budget will come under greater pressure. Space could go into a slow, agonizing withering. He thought this was a distinct possibility if NASA did no more than fly around in cycles over our heads. "It has to go somewhere else," he said.

The obvious target that has huge scientific possibility is Mars. Did life arise there, and does it persist beneath the bleak surface? No robot remotely within our capability can descend down a thermal vent or drill and find an answer. Only humans are qualified to do the science necessary, on the spot.

A Mars expedition would be the grandest exploit open to the 21st century. It would take about 2.5 years, every day closely monitored by a huge Earthside audience and fraught with peril.

This is what we should be doing. Such an adventure would resonate with a world beset by wars and woes. It has a grandeur appropriate to the advanced nations, who should do it together.

The first step will be getting away from the poor, clunky shuttle, a beast designed 30 years ago and visibly failing now. How we respond to the challenge of this failure will tell the tale for decades to come, and may become a marking metaphor for the entire century.

As well, the engineers at NASA would be overjoyed to have a larger prospect before them, something better than patching up an aging shuttle that, in the end, was going nowhere.

Gregory Benford is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, a long-time advisor to NASA, and a novelist.

Posted by DeLong at February 06, 2003 04:48 PM | Trackback

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Comments

Tell me again why it is that a manned mission to Mars wouldn't be a boondoggle?

If unmanned missions are 1/100 the cost of manned missions, and I think that's conservative, then we could do 100 unmanned missions to Mars and related bodies (Europa and Enceladus come quickly to mind) for the cost of a single mission manned mission to Mars. And the idea that only man can check out a vent or drill a hole is hooey. Big time.

Posted by: Anarchus on February 6, 2003 06:19 PM

You are clearly looking forward to faster progress in artificial intelligence than I am...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 6, 2003 06:56 PM

I thought the purpose of the international space station was to make sure soviet rocket scientists stayed fruitfully employed, and didn't go to china, norht korea, iran, or anywhere else particularly scary.

Is that purpose truly done? Did we embark on a "steal the russian scientists program," as we should have, or not.

For future work, the space station is a boondoggle, but I never thought the real purpose was space science. It may have served its purpose quite admirably in the past decade.

B

Posted by: Brennan on February 6, 2003 08:12 PM

eat shit and die nigger

Posted by: dan on February 7, 2003 11:02 PM

eat shit and die nigger

Posted by: dan on February 7, 2003 11:04 PM

eat shit and die nigger

Posted by: dan on February 7, 2003 11:04 PM

eat shit and die nigger

Posted by: dan on February 7, 2003 11:04 PM

eat shit and die nigger

Posted by: dan on February 7, 2003 11:04 PM

Brad DeLong's calculation of the failure rate shows a
lack of understanding of statistics. It's a gross oversimplification to take the number of failures and divide it by the number of flights. Such misrepresentations don't add much insight to the discussion. The other flaws in his commentary are more subtle, but no less fatal.

Posted by: kent on February 7, 2003 11:55 PM

NASA itself is a relect of the cold war it should have been replaced after appollo with an agency that will do its original mission... research. 10 billion spent on research is much better than 10 billion spent on ego.

Posted by: finox on February 8, 2003 01:31 AM

I often see comments about doing space "science" for less. What is the point of all of these scientific missions to Mars, Jupiter, etc. if WE NEVER GO THERE? The real justification for our entire space program is the eventual exploitation of space for materials and living room. I think that the major failure of the space program is to not admit this. Space exploration and exploitation has been shunted aside for space "science' which is WORTHLESS in and of itself.

NASA should get out of the space transportation business and focus on paving the way for the exploration and exploitation of space. NASA should not be designing a successor to the Shuttle. NASA should put out a bid for transportation services at X $/kg and see what comes up. NASA should sell the Space Station to someone and rent space from them.

Posted by: putaro on February 8, 2003 01:55 AM

I suggest you check the failure rates for any of the major lauch vehicles: Ariane, Soyuz, Apollo, and the small ones as well. There are many failures--they are simply not discussed as the loss is of a satellite, not a human being.

Posted by: Alan Peery on February 8, 2003 03:51 AM

Why fly? Why not take an elevator? Costs about half as much to build as the Shuttle program has (so far) to run, read their plans, schedules and costings. Requires no breakthroughs, only continued steady progress in one field for a year, everything else is off the shelf.

Posted by: Leon Brooks on February 8, 2003 04:08 AM

Why fly? Why not take an elevator? Costs about half as much to build as the Shuttle program has (so far) to run, read their plans, schedules and costings. Requires no breakthroughs, only continued steady progress in one field for a year, everything else is off the shelf.

Posted by: Leon Brooks on February 8, 2003 04:09 AM

Why fly? Why not take an elevator? Costs about half as much to build as the Shuttle program has (so far) to run, read their plans, schedules and costings. Requires no breakthroughs, only continued steady progress in one field for a year, everything else is off the shelf.

Posted by: Leon Brooks on February 8, 2003 04:23 AM

Excellent and succinct commentary on the whole American Space program!

This article should be required reading by everyone who has any say about where we are going in space!

Thanks!

Posted by: Rpger Born on February 8, 2003 04:24 AM

Excellent and succinct commentary on the whole American Space program!

This article should be required reading by everyone who has any say about where we are going in space!

Thanks!

Posted by: Rpger Born on February 8, 2003 04:25 AM

Why fly? Why not take an elevator? Costs about half as much to build as the Shuttle program has (so far) to run, read their plans, schedules and costings. Requires no breakthroughs, only continued steady progress in one field for a year, everything else is off the shelf.

Posted by: Leon Brooks on February 8, 2003 04:41 AM

DooberDan, sad man, go away and get a life. I'm caucasian (`whitefeller' to illiterates, 3/4 British, 1/4 Austrian, all grandparents and down Australian), and I have Zulu, Aboriginal, Philipino, Japanese, Italian, Chinese-Indonesian, plain Chinese, Zimbabwian, French, Maori, Indian-Indian, Red-Indian and Inuit friends and co-workers. They're all good people, so stick your miserable outlook where the sun don't shine.

To everyone else, this site keeps giving me a timeout but posts my stuff regardless. Any idea why?

Posted by: Leon Brooks on February 8, 2003 04:59 AM

Interesting article. Especially this part:

" What can people do in near-earth orbit that is worth doing that unmanned remote-controlled craft cannot? It never talks about it because it is a question that has no answer."

In the following paragraph you state:

" ... we need to learn about two things ... How to make a closed biosphere work in zero gravity ... Second, how to make centrifugal force serve as a substitute for Terran gravity"

You've answered your own question. True, while there isn't much science happening on the ISS right now, that doesn't negate *why* we must continue to send humans into Earth orbit. Robots are not appropriate for this kind of research - we need to figure out how to live in space for long durations, to take on the missions that you're suggesting. The only way to do so is to send people up.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on February 8, 2003 05:10 AM

Interesting article. Especially this part:

" What can people do in near-earth orbit that is worth doing that unmanned remote-controlled craft cannot? It never talks about it because it is a question that has no answer."

In the following paragraph you state:

" ... we need to learn about two things ... How to make a closed biosphere work in zero gravity ... Second, how to make centrifugal force serve as a substitute for Terran gravity"

You've answered your own question. True, while there isn't much science happening on the ISS right now, that doesn't negate *why* we must continue to send humans into Earth orbit. Robots are not appropriate for this kind of research - we need to figure out how to live in space for long durations, to take on the missions that you're suggesting. The only way to do so is to send people up.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on February 8, 2003 05:11 AM

The two shuttle disasters have entirely unrelated catastrohpic failures. There is no way to even correlate the two beyond the fact that they were both "Shuttle" craft.

Granted, both disasters are terrible tragedies, just like the terrible tragedy that took the lives of those astronauts aboard the simple re-entry vehicle that you detail.

You also fail to mention the dangers that the Russian cosmonauts were subjected to by their own space capsules, that landed not in the ocean, but on dry land. I believe more then a few Russian cosmonauts have died upon crashing into the Earth during "landing".

There is also something else to mention. The shuttles have run since the late seventies. Unless I am seriously mistaken, no other manned spacecraft has been flown longer by NASA. Maybe there are some design flaws, maybe there exists some stress that has occurred over the years to the space craft. That's all very possible.

I am also certain that if we had continued to fly the 60's era capsules, we would likely have had, if not one, at least a few accidents. What would you tell the families of the astronauts that ended up sinking into the bottom of the Pacific? (Likely scenario.)

You would end up writing the same exact piece that you wrote here. You would rationalize how NASA should have moved away from such antiquated technology as modern technology would have avoided the problems inherent with a capsule design.

You might have even suggested a "Space Plane" design, using logic to deduce that since there are so few aircraft incidents, in comparison to the number of flights, that a NASA "Space Plane" would be the best of options. Especially with the potential for a greater cargo capicity, which could be used to retrieve satelites and bring home larger science experiments.

Don't say that you wouldn't, because you know that you would.

The way I see the whole incident is that is happened. There is likely nothing that could have been done to avoid it. It may have happened due to human error, it might have been mechanical failure. It sucks that it did happen, we all wish that it didn't happen. There is nothing that we can do to change that fact.

This is just like a regular plain crash. Often when a regular aircraft crashes, it is due to Human error. However, nobody gets up in arms about how aircraft should be replaced with the much safer, although slower and in many cases less versatile Zeppelin airships. Wouldn't that be silly?

Posted by: Robert Adkins II on February 8, 2003 05:23 AM

It is time for space elevators. NASA, the Air Force, Navy, NOAA and anyone else interested in NEO, MEO and even GEO satelites should invest heavily in carbon nanotube technology and the development of the structure of a space elevator.

Manned space flight should also continue, focused more honestly on the goal of reaching Mars, and more ambitiously, the stars.

Posted by: Andy Brunetto on February 8, 2003 05:26 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: Bob on February 8, 2003 05:53 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: Bob on February 8, 2003 05:54 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: Bob on February 8, 2003 05:54 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: Bob on February 8, 2003 05:57 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: Bob on February 8, 2003 06:03 AM

Mr Adkins II

Stop playing devils advocate. You seem un interested in a discustion, rather a rant. + you sound about 13 years old.

There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans, and inventing a hyper complex, far from elegant piece of crap. And I have no doubt that refinement of this old tecnology, using new materials and so on would have lead to much safer craft as well.

Posted by: bob on February 8, 2003 06:05 AM

A lot of separate comments, as you cover a lot of issues.

I'm thoroughly in favour of a manned space programme, it's necessary.

For the cost of the manned space programme, we could have done probably 1000 times as much science using robots ( but see above ). This order-of-magnitude figure is based on my recent experiences leading the software development team for an R&D satellite. It surprised the hell out of me.

Note that robots can't do it all, some things need humans. Most of the biological experiments on board Columbia for example, would not have been feasible to do via robot (ie would have cost too much). The ones involving human reactions to space couldn't have been done at all, to state the obvious. But more money for robots in LEO now would give greater payoffs with manned travel in 20 years time, IF spent correctly. If spent in the same fashion as per the Shuttle, then it won't help one iota.

The Shuttle is past it's use-by date. We should have had something better no later than 1990, we've been screwing around wasting resources for 20 years. OK, better late than never, we need to start doing something better now, so it will be in service by 2020, and it successor by 2030.

We need a 2001-style space station for research on using centripedal acceleration to emulate gravity. Note that in the film, it was both modular and only 2/3 completed, but still in use. Experiments using microgravity have to be via tethered free-floating platforms anyway, you get too much vibration on the ISS.

All future space developments should be stepwise, rather than overly-ambitious. Get A working, then use it to build B. Going directly to Z is too much of a risk - not just that people will die, that will happen anyway, but that you'll have to go back and start again from square 1.

I favour getting a working moon colony that can survive 12 months without external re-supply before trying for Mars. A Hohlmann transfer just won't do the job, takes too long, but even a relatively short and energetic trajectory will take months. A Moonbase will teach us valuable lessons about close-cycled ecosystems, and lots of areas we just don't know.

NSWR is looking good, we need to research this and NERVA as a high priority. Start now, we might have something reliable in 30 years.

Posted by: Alan E Brain on February 8, 2003 06:12 AM

NASA's current role is to research and build space transportation systems that economically viable.

Once NASA has a proven delivery system, commercial interests will take over and the US taxpayer will be relieved of their funding burden.

Unfortunately, NASA has lost sight of their goal.

Posted by: Joseph on February 8, 2003 06:47 AM

Your editorial may make some valid points, but your alternatives are not any more viable than the current shuttle.

You state that we should operate unmanned spacecraft by telepresence while opening by reminding readers that the more complicated things are, the more parts there are to fail. Obviously, when you start automating and remotely controlling, you add another element which can awry and endanger the mission. Of course, the obvious retort is that at least no lives would be at stake on the shuttle; however, lives on the ground would be at risk. As of now, we are lucky that no one on the ground has been killed by pieces of falling debris. The Columbia's break-up, as tragic as it was, could have been more so if a decent sized piece had hit a person or a vehicle. For all intents and purposes, a shotgun was fired at the "impact zone" in the Southwest, but all the shot missed. Fortunate, but if we start having more missions failing, we may not be so lucky.

The concept of capsules was already eliminated by a previous poster due to their lack of self-contained propulsion and the dangers posed therein ("splashdown" on land), but I would like to add another element consistent with the previous theme: population density. Russia is essentially empty, so crashdowns did not yield a major danger to by-standers. But for America, having the capsule miss the Pacific or Atlantic and land on a coast would be disasterous, since the plurality of our population exists along coasts. The loss of life from one errant capsule could easily double or triple the number of space-related deaths (currently at 14 during the approximately three decades of shuttle use).

Is the best approach the shuttle? Maybe not. We may be able to come up with a more effective and reliable method, but as for now, it does not seem to pose an excessive risk.

Posted by: TCQuad on February 8, 2003 06:48 AM

Mr. Benford's comments on the shuttle program are right on the money. I however suggest that it would be really instructive for us to establish a permanent presence on the moon before going to Mars. There we'd HAVE to develop the closed-loop recycling needed for the long trip to Mars. The moon is also a good source of materials (metals, counterweights centrifuge-based craft) sitting in a much shallower gravity well than Earth's. And there should be plenty to learn about the Earth and space by scientists that live on the moon. It's better than the IIS in low-earth orbit, and more within our current technological grasp than Mars.

Posted by: James Beck on February 8, 2003 06:59 AM

I had a lot of respect for Gregory Benford, but his claim that the shuttle is the least reliable launch vehicle is a blatant falsehood. The shuttle has an over 98% success rate, which would be a sensational result for any unmanned rocket. Even the Delta 7925 (http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/dela7925.htm), a rocket renowned for its reliability, has "only" a 97.67% success rate. One might claim that he meant manned launch vehicles, but then that's an unfair comparison - no other manned launch vehicle has flown the 100+ missions to provide a fair statistical sampling that the shuttle has.

Benford recommends switching to using the Russian Soyuz, ignoring the fact that the Soyuz has also had two fatal missions, and in far fewer flights than the shuttle.

Though I agree with the overall tenor of Benford's article, this ridiculous statement calls it all into question for anyone who knows anything about spaceflight (unlike, evidently, Benford).

Posted by: Kevin W. Parker on February 8, 2003 08:27 AM

Quote: "The shuttle's justification these days has been its role in supporting a space station that now does little science. The station runs with the minimum crew of three, to save money while forgetting science...

"NASA has played up the station as 'a stepping-stone to the planets' - but it cannot perform the two experiments we know must be done before any manned ventures beyond Low Earth Orbit begin."

Here's the irony: The science that serves as PR to build broad support for space exploration is almost always exactly the opposite sort of science from that which builds space exploration itself.

Posted by: adamsj on February 8, 2003 08:44 AM

Everyone keeps saying "we HAVE to keep going into space". Why? We have done that for years and found nothing out there we need. Billions of dollars out of the taxpayer pockets going to special interest groups. Space exploration is,and sadly will continue to be,the largest rat hole in history the taxpayers have ever thrown their money down. We talk of helping humanity with space exploration yet we kill unborn babies every day. What a joke!

Posted by: Zin on February 8, 2003 09:16 AM

Everyone keeps saying "we HAVE to keep going into space". Why? We have done that for years and found nothing out there we need. Billions of dollars out of the taxpayer pockets going to special interest groups. Space exploration is,and sadly will continue to be,the largest rat hole in history the taxpayers have ever thrown their money down. We talk of helping humanity with space exploration yet we kill unborn babies every day. What a joke!

Posted by: Zin on February 8, 2003 09:18 AM

Zin - you speak of killing unborn babies every day. If all those babies are born, in addition to the ones born evey day, and they all produce children in the future, and so on, where are we going to put them all 300 years down the road? Earth only has so much room. The resources of this planet are being exhausted, and will not continue to support life for an indefinite period. Space exploration is there to help us find a solution to this problem in the future, whether it be to discover and colonize new planets, or how to retrieve resources from other planets in the solar system. It's a venture that's certainly worth my tax dollars.

Posted by: somebody on February 8, 2003 09:57 AM

Somebody- Earth has supported life for over 6,000 years. What makes you think we only have 300 or so left? You have bought into a lie designed to keep the money flowing into the pockets of those who claim to be able to save us from ourselves. Space exploration exists for the Defence Dept. and no one else. Wake up my friend,we are being screwed BIG TIME by those who seek only to line their own pockets with free research dollars and to stroke their own ego with a bigger and better bomb. Helping themselves,not earth,is their only goal. We are just people they live off of.

Posted by: Zin on February 8, 2003 11:13 AM

Of Babies and Bathwater...

One of Benford's (am assuming your agreement), positions is that the space station does not allow for partial-G experiments prior to a trip to Mars.

Maybe I'm missing something but it seems uniquely qualified...

Astronaut's spend 6 months on the station simulating the trip to Mars. Then a fresh crew from Earth takes them to the Moon, which at quarter-G is a fair approximation of Mars gravity.

Person's with celebrity need to be careful how they use it. Its easy to get attention now, because it invokes the image of dead astronauts.

Posted by: Estaban on February 8, 2003 11:29 AM

Reasonable people can debate whether the shuttle, ISS, or current space program are accomplishing much, or whether they will truly lead us somewhere.

However, I believe there is also a broader issue. As a 45 year old, I grew up with the wonder of space travel. We got up early to watch the Mercury & Gemini launches, and were tranfixed watching the lunar landing. This has survived (witness the number of these discussions going on) to the present day -- to the disdain of my kids, I watched NASA TV as the Pathfinder/Sojourner landed on Mars a few summers ago.

But we have lost that. With no real goal, space travel has become common place -- obviously not truly, but in the mind of the public. While my childhood heros (at some level) were astronauts, those of the recent past are stock traders.

A result of this (at least in the late 90's) was and increase in MBA's along with a large decline in the number of math, science, and engineering graduates.

My bottom line: without the national goal, we have lost our way. Whether it was the scientific goal per se, or the challenge of "beat the russians", we had a goal, and as a society, we rose to the challenge.

Americans and, at present, the human race, seems to need such a challenge. Not necessarily science for science sake (too many folks consumed with "joe millionaire"), but the competition or target to achieve.

IMHO, we (be it Congress, the President, whoever) needs to set the strategic goal of Mars by 2010 (or 2012, whatever), and move toward that target. Without these challenges, we thrash.

We need to renew the sense of wonder with science and exploration.

Posted by: nereus on February 8, 2003 11:33 AM

I will have to agree with Mr. Benford that the shuttle is overly complex. It is a craft that was a result of the U.S. need to demonstrate technical prowess in a time that no longer exists. Ironically enough, and as Mr. Benford mentions, Russia did build their own shuttle. In fact, it is superior to our own; it is capable of lifting more into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) than the U.S. Shuttle. However, the Russians had it right using capsules as the primary access method to LEO. It is reliable method that has a relatively quick turn around and is at least or more cost effective than the shuttle. If space access was looked at as a business I think a solid "cost analysis" would indicate the capsule is the winner in terms of risk, time and money.
This brings us to why the shuttle and it's continued use is not only foolish, but also dangerous for the future of N.A.S.A and most notably the future of the International Space Station. The shuttle is the only U.S. method of accessing space that is compatible with the ISS. Subsequently is the only method for the U.S. to continue operations of the ISS. The Challenger should have showed us the risk of using the shuttle as the primary vehicle for humans to LEO. Development of a less capable vehicle for delivering humans to space should have commenced after it was clear that the disaster investigation would not resolve itself quickly. Certainly the notion of a space station was being toyed with at the time. The question should have been asked: "What if the shuttle fails?" Perhaps it was; and the conclusion "Power it down and send everyone home." was reached. I would argue against this sort of philosophy. It is irresponsible for N.A.S.A. to continue to pour money into the ISS when there is even a remote possibility that the ISS won't be used, because it can't be traveled to.
Beyond all of this, if N.A.S.A. has big plans to build inter-planetary craft then they will need to increase the frequency at which people and materials are sent into space. The shuttle is not the craft for this job. It takes months to prep the shuttle for launch. If we wish to be successful explorers we will need to make sure that we can supply our missions quickly and reliably. Our current "Space Infrastructure" is not capable of this task.
On a different note I feel that the attack of the ISS as a "camping ground" is unwarranted. It is a start to something that will eventually (hopefully) evolve as a platform for future efforts to the moon, mars and beyond. It IS a "Stepping Stone". Arguably, not the rotating masterpiece of Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is however an excellent training ground for astronauts and engineers alike. Building a space station isn't easy. Space is one of the most hostile environments known to man. Extreme temperatures, lack of atmosphere, radiation and others make it a difficult environment to build for. It will be some time before we see the "Bio Sphere" Mr. Benford speaks of. The only way the "Bio Sphere" can become a reality is through more trips to space and more exposure to maintaining a manned environment. Unfortunately, the Shuttle and the current U.S. program direction are not prepared to accommodate this sort of activity. In fact, the whole design of the space station is based on what the Shuttle can carry.
Personally, I think the Russians have it right; a ship for people, and a ship for equipment. Why combine the two roles, when they are so very different? Cargo does not have Human transportation needs, and Humans, cargo. The boosters and heavy lift vehicles should be saved for equipment, not humans. A SSTO space plane capable of carrying people is a much more viable as means of human transportation. The two separated provide the greatest chance of U.S. success in our efforts to explore space.
To those that suggest a "space elevator" as the solution for our entire heavy lift woes; I say be cautious. The principal is sound, but the technology is untested. Untested technology is not to be fully trusted.
To those that say, "Why explore?" and that the space station and shuttle are a waste of money. You use more materials than you know, that are a result of the space program and its research. The engineering problems that are solved by constructing the ISS and the shuttle eventually find their way into medicine, consumer products, industrial manufacturing and so on. The list goes on. Space is not a fruitless endeavor much is learned and can BE learned by exploring it. It's not just science that reaps the benefits of such explorations.

Posted by: Logan Greenlee on February 8, 2003 12:34 PM

Most people I know didn't know or care that there was a space shuttle up there. (this is Berkeley). They are more interested in the football game. They equate the shuttle/space program with the government, which is automatically evil because of the impending war.
Like a friend of mine said the other day, "I dont have a place to live!"
Personally I'm real interested in it, but there is the reality that it seems most people like myself are just watching this show, and really dont seem to have much input to it.
And that's if they ARE watching. This is just how I see it. I'm a freak on this stuff, Mars probes and all that, but it seems very out of touch with the world I live in where people dont have a roof over their head, there is rape, murder and mental illness all over the place, a war threatening...

Posted by: John Delmos on February 8, 2003 01:41 PM

I agree that a small spacecraft specifically for personnel is part of the solution. But I think that we should also convert the shuttle system to a heavy-lifter by replacing the orbiter with a cargo pod (capacity 150K - 200K pounds). This would give us the capability to lift the heavy loads a real exploration effort needs with a minimum of time and expense, and use existing infrastructure. Since it would be unmanned, it would be much simpler and cheaper to operate.

This idea was looked at early in the station program. It would have let us build a fully operational complex in 3 or 4 launches - a fraction of the present cost. As I remember, it wasn't chosen because the station wouldn't have been compatible with planned European and Japanese modules. Maybe it's time to revisit this.

Posted by: John Seeley on February 8, 2003 01:43 PM

Most people I know didn't know or care that there was a space shuttle up there. (this is Berkeley). They are more interested in the football game. They equate the shuttle/space program with the government, which is automatically evil because of the impending war.
Like a friend of mine said the other day, "I dont have a place to live!"
Personally I'm real interested in it, but there is the reality that it seems most people like myself are just watching this show, and really dont seem to have much input to it.
And that's if they ARE watching. This is just how I see it. I'm a freak on this stuff, Mars probes and all that, but it seems very out of touch with the world I live in where people dont have a roof over their head, there is rape, murder and mental illness all over the place, a war threatening...

Posted by: John Delmos on February 8, 2003 01:43 PM

Most people I know didn't know or care that there was a space shuttle up there. (this is Berkeley). They are more interested in the football game. They equate the shuttle/space program with the government, which is automatically evil because of the impending war.
Like a friend of mine said the other day, "I dont have a place to live!"
Personally I'm real interested in it, but there is the reality that it seems most people like myself are just watching this show, and really dont seem to have much input to it.
And that's if they ARE watching. This is just how I see it. I'm a freak on this stuff, Mars probes and all that, but it seems very out of touch with the world I live in where people dont have a roof over their head, there is rape, murder and mental illness all over the place, a war threatening...

Posted by: John Delmos on February 8, 2003 01:43 PM

Most people I know didn't know or care that there was a space shuttle up there. (this is Berkeley). They are more interested in the football game. They equate the shuttle/space program with the government, which is automatically evil because of the impending war.
Like a friend of mine said the other day, "I dont have a place to live!"
Personally I'm real interested in it, but there is the reality that it seems most people like myself are just watching this show, and really dont seem to have much input to it.
And that's if they ARE watching. This is just how I see it. I'm a freak on this stuff, Mars probes and all that, but it seems very out of touch with the world I live in where people dont have a roof over their head, there is rape, murder and mental illness all over the place, a war threatening...

Posted by: John Delmos on February 8, 2003 01:45 PM

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the argument that we should cut back or eliminate manned spaceflight -- or even NASA altogether -- is the idea that NASA has spent a lot of money on something that hasn't benefited the citizens of the United States.

In this case, the journey is the reward. The International Space Station may not be actively generating new scientific advances for us just yet. However, in order to get as far with it as we have, NASA has come up with a lot of advances that are now part of our daily lives.

What if we hadn't spent all that money to go to the moon, and to make a space shuttle, and build the ISS?

Get rid of your cordless drill and all the other cordless hand tools you own. They were developed by NASA to meet the need for power tools that could be used in space. That battery technology is part of our space benefit.

Know anyone with medical implants? Chances are, they use NASA technology. In fact, the valves developed for the Shuttle engines were adapted for use as artificial heart valves.

Do you have a Moen faucet with a lifetime finish? That metal-coating technology, along with others used for things like kitchen utensils and car engines, was developed by NASA.

Do you watch cable TV? All those extra channels are possible because of communication satellite amplification technology that was developed so that NASA could talk to an orbiting shuttle. If you don't have cable... well, that UHF channel that used to be too weak to receive boosted its signal using space technology.

Know someone with an artificial hip joint? The materials science that made the artifical part biocompatible -- that is, able to be implanted without rejection -- came from NASA's rocket motor research.

Of course, if you were to eliminate NASA technology from your life, you'd have to get rid of things that use charge-coupled devices: Digital cameras. Camcorders. Scanners. Inexpensive bar-code readers.

What if you have a house fire? Well, without the flame-resistant fabric, self-contained life support apparatus, and other technology developed by NASA, the firemen would have a much tougher time saving your home.

The device invented to measure the remaining propellant on the Apollo lunar landers is still the device of choice for measuring the tanks on liquified natural gas tankers.

Going fishing? Well, if you use X-1R reel lube on your fishing reel, make sure to thank NASA. It was invented as an environmentally safe lubricant for the massive crawler that moves the Space Shuttle onto the launch pad.

Do you drive a car? Well, besides the fact that the fly-by-wire throttle system was based on NASA research, and it uses wire insulation developed for NASA, there's the road you drive on. There's a good chance that the highways you use have small grooves in them to assist with runoff. That technology was developed by NASA.

Get packages via UPS? That little postage-stamp sized two-dimensional barcode that looks like a checkerboard was developed to keep track of spare Shuttle parts.

Many of the things that Americans take for granted as part of our modern world can trace their lineage back to NASA. By trying to do incredibly ambitious things like send a man to the moon, or build a permanent habitat in space, NASA has funded and encouraged the development of technologies that pervade our lives.

Even if the International Space Station never meets its Mission Statement goal of becoming a platform for science -- something that I consider unlikely -- the very act of building it will advance science and technology considerably.

It's for this reason that we must not abandon our space ambitions. Nothing is more ambitious than manned spaceflight. We can't afford to give it up.

Posted by: Rob on February 8, 2003 01:47 PM

Cracking the zero G problem with centrifuge technology is certainly a mission for manned spaceflight. We need to know how much coriolis force is acceptable since that determines the parameters of the craft.

The closed biosphere problem only needs to be cracked IN SPACE if you believe that you can't solve the zero G problem. So, to save money, build a true closed biosphere here on earth (I'm pretty sure that's already being worked on) and plan on spinning it along with the crew who'll have to maintain it..

So, the next logical step is to build a centrifuge in space - large enough to house a small crew for a year or so - with adjustable spin speed and radius.

Posted by: Steve Baker on February 8, 2003 05:18 PM

firstly, to "dan". Whilst your posting should probably not be graced with any reply, I'll just say: please go away.

I agree with the point raised that the shuttle is just too complex, and that is probably its downfall. The loss of two crews is far too high a price to pay. Whilst it is true, as pointed out by other posters, that the Russians (then the Soviet Union) have had fatal reentry accidents with their much simpler capsule, both were in the very early learning period, and those problems have now apparently been fixed. If memory serves correctly, one of the fatal reentry accidents was due to failure of life support systems, and the other due to a parachute failure. Consider this: those things must work for a successful shuttle reentry also, but for the shuttle to get back safely a whole bunch of other things have to work perfectly too.

Posted by: Duncan on February 8, 2003 06:18 PM

One thing no one has mentioned yet (or it was posted during the time I wrote this) is that, in order to fund the Shuttle, Congress REQUIRED NASA to destroy ALL engineering drawings, plans, architectural drawings, etc... for the Saturn V rocket. Between this fact, and the fact that Congressional budget cuts caused the shuttle to be redisigned multiple times (One of the original designs had a detachable crew module that could survive re-entry on its own) in order to try to get the craft built at a LOWER cost than originally estimated. This resulted in a craft that bears little resemblance to the original spaceplane design from the late 60s-early 70s. NASA engineers produced a miracle under extreme budgetary pressure, after having one of the best heavy-lift vehicles ever built stripped from their hands, and had to make what was originally supposed to be a light-cargo people-mover into a space truck, which is, at best, a mediocre vehicle. In my opinion, the whole blame for the disaster sits squarely on the head of the Congress, and to a lesser amount on the Office of the President of the United States.

Manned spaceflight, as well as robotic probes are necessary. Both are also dangerous. Both should be given sufficient budgets to allow good advances in information gathering as well as materials and other technologies. We have 2 ways to advance technology at a pace greater than a dead stop: through war and struggle, or through exploration. Some wars are inevitable, but I would rather have most of our advancement come from exploration.

Posted by: Peter on February 8, 2003 07:25 PM

Nearly seventeen years ago, with the help of Alan Jefferson, I put together a proposal for an orbiting Space Cronometer, an hour, minute and second hand in space to give GMT to the entire planet. Our proposal was an entry for the Tour Eiffel de la Space 1986 competition (published in Leonardo, Vol. 2 No. 22 if I remember correctly). That in turn came from some ideas I had put together under the heading; Blowing Bubble Structures in Space. All of that was related to a number of ideas I have about building large structures in space and rotating structures giving gravity to such a structure. Have a look at the record; the maths have already been done; the idea of such structures is easily viable today.

I need hardly mention that, as a Brit., the effort was a complete waste of time as the UK government has for a long time now been totally unsupportive of space. (One of the reasons why I am here in the USA now). I put that at the front to give the reader some idea of where I come from when making these comments.

As with an asteroid strike, a disaster creates the opening for rapid evolution. We need a new vision of what is possible. We absolutely must not permit the return of a status quo. First, to those that debunk the spending of tax I ask; how else do you fund the development of any society? For, without investment in people and their ideas, the United States will rapidly become a third world country. And for those that laugh at that, I relate a comment made to me recently on a railway station platform in the UK. "You do not realise just how much the UK has become third world until you come back from a third world country to here".

Investment in the ideas of the people of a nation lie at the heart of any nations success. Money sitting in a bank vault does nothing for anyone but the banker paying themselves a kings ransom to hold the key to the vault.

In the short term the Shuttle is the only way forward. It is normally reliable, (This is the only failure of the schuttle itself. Period), and the obvious immediate difficulties can be overcome. It should be put back into service immediately. From that point forward all the effort must be placed into a new program that runs at the problems. Space needs a Skunk Works mentality with a large number of small teams competitively set up to look at these headings.

Cheaper structures in space. Particularly ones that can be moved around in space.

What cargo and launch equipment goes up, stays there. Only return human cargo.

Gravity. Some of you might know that there are some of us that believe we are on the verge of controlling gravity. This must be set as a prime priority.

A moon base, not a low earth orbit station. Back that up with a total commitment to a far side of the moon astronomical observatory. Now, not in twenty years time.

A rapid move to look at Mars now, not in twenty years time. It can be done if the mindset is there.

In the 1960's and 70's The United States stood tall World-Wide as a beacon precisely because it set the imaginations of the planet alight with notions of doing the impossible in space, not as a military gamut, but as a sensible aiming point for the best minds it had and still has today. I say, get back to the basic aiming point of taking on the seeming impossible and make that work, not as an exercise in ego mania, but as a serious plan to take this fine country back to the best business it knows; setting the imaginations alight of the best minds this plant has at hand. And get to it NOW!

Posted by: Chris Coles on February 9, 2003 11:35 AM

Any exploration is fraught with danger. We kill far more people every year, with cars, airplanes, avalanches etc than have been lost in the entire era of space exploration. At least the people killed in the Columbia accident were doing something to further man's knowledge of this world.

Posted by: R R Peery on February 9, 2003 04:57 PM

Any exploration is fraught with danger. We kill far more people every year, with cars, airplanes, avalanches etc than have been lost in the entire era of space exploration. At least the people killed in the Columbia accident were doing something to further man's knowledge of this world.

Posted by: R R Peery on February 9, 2003 04:58 PM

Any exploration is fraught with danger. We kill far more people every year, with cars, airplanes, avalanches etc than have been lost in the entire era of space exploration. At least the people killed in the Columbia accident were doing something to further man's knowledge of this world.

Posted by: R R Peery on February 9, 2003 05:00 PM

Its impossible to explore new fields without risks.
Can anyone to mention only ONE example on all Human History that probes this is wrong?.

Posted by: Pietro on February 10, 2003 07:52 AM

Dan, I have a question for you about your three posts "eat..and Die N-word"... Are you threatend by the fact that someone is smarter than you, more articulate than you, and has a better job than you? Good. You should be dullard. Also, your comments are obviously from an uneducated, closeminded, scarred little intellect that can't grasp the what has been said here. good luck with your burger flipping. And do the world a favor, either evolve or get off our planet. Not into Space, because, frankly, you don't belong there, unless it's floating in the vacuum without a Envirosuit. More like "from this realm of reality", as in Die, you racist, mental midget, retarded redneck, sister dating, mono cuspidal, neonazi, lapdog. You are the weekest link... goodbye.

Posted by: Sixx on February 10, 2003 04:34 PM

A couple folks comment:

>>There is no doubt that more stuff could have been put in space for FAR less money if NASA had stayed with saturn rockets, instead of burning the god-damn plans...

>>Congress REQUIRED NASA to destroy ALL engineering drawings, plans, architectural drawings, etc... for the Saturn V rocket.

Now that would have been very peculiar if true, but it's not.
http://www.space.com/news/spacehistory/saturn_five_000313.html

The plans are all safely in storage. They are merely useless today, that's all.

Posted by: Jim Glass on February 11, 2003 09:08 AM

I apologize for the error in my comment about the Saturn 5 plans. I had heard a story on NPR that mentioned that Congress had required the plans to be destroyed. It sounded like something a congressional committee might require to make sure funding for one program wasn't passed to another, so I took it at face value. I do agree that NASA needs a seperate heavy lift capability, and it should use a newer design, but there are off the shelf parts that can be used rather than designing everything from scratch.

I saw a report today that, for the last few years, Congress has been giving NASA basically what they have asked for budget-wise. I don't know what to say to that, except that it's possible that NASA might not have wanted to ask for more money only to have it refused, or taken away at a later date.

My opinion that the disaster was caused by budget issues causing re-designs still stands.

Posted by: Peter on February 12, 2003 04:03 PM

In a couple of years when the Chinese prove they are serious about establishing a moon base by the end of the decade there will be no shortage of money to match them.

Are space elevators really practical today? If buckytubes are strong enough that is wonderful but I wouldn't trust building a 38,000km one until somebody has built one at least 100km long.

Posted by: Neil Craig on February 13, 2003 04:07 PM

we should NOT sent someone else now

Posted by: Kiveeta on March 30, 2003 12:05 PM
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