Sunday, May 01, 2011

End of the Line for the Shuttle

As of this evening (Sunday May 1), the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor has been postponed till at least May 8, a week from today. To fly, Endeavor needs hydraulic power. To make hydraulic power in space, Endeavor has three auxiliary power units (APUs) on the craft that run on hydrazine, a nasty compound that can freeze if it gets too cold, as it is apt to in space. So each APU has a heater to keep the hydrazine warm. Something went wrong with one of the power circuits to a heater, and they’re going to have to replace a switchbox. So neither President Obama nor the estimated three-quarter-million people who gathered in Florida to watch the launch had the satisfaction of seeing Endeavor take off for the last time. This turn of events was regrettable, perhaps, but in these last flights NASA seems to be erring on the side of caution, which is just as well.

In past blog posts, I have made it clear that I think the Space Shuttle program ran about a decade too long. After the 2003 Columbia disaster, it was time to rethink the nation’s entire approach to space and space exploration. Instead, patches were applied to patches, and the program has limped along for eight more years, fortunately without further loss of life, unless you count James Vanover, a 53-year-old contract engineer who fell to his death at the launch pad last March 14. I’m sure Mrs. Vanover counts him, even if others don’t.

Even the simplest orbit-capable rocket is a horrendously complex engineered system. And making one that is both safe enough and powerful enough to carry people­–and all their necessary comforts of home such as food, air, water, and room enough to move around in–is vastly harder than simply putting some non-breathing, non-eating, and expendable hardware up there. So for decades, the vast majority of scientists who really want to do science in space have favored cutting back or eliminating manned space flight in preference to putting much more efficient dollars into unmanned launches of robot probes such as the highly successful Mars rover.

Of course, science and engineering are hopelessly confused in the public mind. Just this morning at church, one of the worship team leaders said something about “this doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.” “Rocket scientist” is one of those phrases that has taken on a life of its own, although you could argue that the last true rocket scientist was Newton, in the sense that he wrote down the fundamental equations that turned rocketry from a mysterious art into an engineering chore. Ever since then, we’ve had lots of rocket engineers, but strictly speaking, no rocket scientists.

It’s fruitless to point out these pedantic trivialities to millions who will go on saying “rocket scientist” and thinking the United States will take another big step toward the Hall of Shame if we can no longer put a man into space. But manned space flight has always been about something more than science, or even engineering, though it has taken billions of dollars’ worth of both to achieve it and keep it going. In the 1960s the space race was a sublimated way to fight the Cold War. In the 1980s, the Shuttle program turned into a political football that provided convenient ways for congressmen to send federal dollars to their states and districts. Any science that gets done with it is sort of a byproduct, a kind of window-dressing to make it more presentable to the public. This is not to criticize the scientists who manage to get good science done even with all the constraints posed by the Shuttle. But if we had the last thirty years to do all over again, with the same funding but no people in space, we probably could have built five or six Hubble telescopes or their more advanced equivalents for the same money it cost to keep the Shuttle cripping along all this time.

From an engineering point of view, the politics has clouded the situation again. Constellation, the leading candidate to replace the Shuttle, is now basically canceled, and there is no clear consensus on what we ought to do next. One option favored by President Obama (and this is one of the few proposals he has made which seems sensible to me) is to turn NASA into a contract-supervision outfit, and let private enterprise conduct the work of space exploration, including making money at it if that can be done. Clearly, the U. S. government will be the main, if not the only, customer for the near future, even if most of NASA’s work is privatized. And that brings us back to the main question: what good is manned space flight?

It’s not science. And it’s engineering, strictly speaking, only if it makes money. So what if we as a nation explore space for the same reason mountaineers climb mountains: because it’s there? That is an esthetic, or if you prefer, even a religious reason. And there are large numbers of people involved with space and related matters (such as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) whose secret or not-so-secret hope is that we will either find somebody else out there, or we’ll eventually move out there ourselves in a big way, not a few at a time in a glorified flying tuna can.

Thinking that it is man’s destiny either to live on other planets, or to find beings who live on other planets, is so far an act of faith. While this is a free country and everyone has a right to their own beliefs, we also have what is called disestablishment of religion. That means one religious group can’t get the government to tax everybody to pay for their own worship services. To the extent that manned spaceflight is an act of worship in the religion of space destiny, I for one would like to see my tax dollars go somewhere else.

Sources: The latest Space Shuttle launch schedules, news releases, and other helpful information can be found at the NASA website

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