Monday, February 15, 2010

The End of the Space Shuttle-And What Next?

America's space program has always been interesting from an engineering ethics perspective. During the race to the moon in the 1960s, we witnessed the unique spectacle of billions of dollars of technological effort focused on a goal that was, in retrospect, primarily political and cultural, not technical or scientific. The Space Shuttle's two major disasters—Challenger's explosion after launch in 1986 and Columbia's disintegration on reentry in 2003—have provided extensively documented object lessons in how not to manage hazardous technical operations. And now as America faces a new decade and the Space Shuttle's scheduled retirement by the end of this year, the question arises: what next?

The Obama administration has weighed in with its opinion: no trip to the moon, on the government's dime, anyway. According to news reports, the President's proposed budget eliminates funding for the moon-bound Constellation program, on which $9 billion has already been spent. A while back, $9 billion sounded like a lot of money, but as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out, that is only a few percent of the 2009 stimulus package that has seemed to do little more than delay some inevitable cutbacks. Constellation could be finished for less than $9 billion more, but instead, the budget calls for a change in course toward commercial space flights.

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, I am no supporter of the Space Shuttle. The only justification for keeping this antiquated technology running is that we had no alternative if America was to keep any presence in manned space flight. So I welcome the wind-down of the program after its remaining four flights this year, and look forward to seeing one of the Shuttles take a well-deserved rest in the halls of the Smithsonian Museum, where it belongs.

At the same time, my underlying assumption was that wiser heads than mine would initiate and complete an alternative to the Shuttle in a timely fashion, "timely" meaning not too long after the Shuttle was retired. Well, it retires in less than a year, and not only do we not have a replacement, now we do not even have plans for a replacement. True, various private firms are competing for both manned and unmanned space operations, but let's think about that for a moment. The restrictions and precautions needed to make manned space flight safe enough to undertake even by a government employee who has trained for ten or fifteen years for a mission one knows to be dangerous, are so expensive that only the government has heretofore been able to afford it. In today's litigious environment, I am trying to imagine how a private company is going to succeed (which means, make a profit at) in a field where entire governments have spent billions and failed to develop manned flight systems that are safe and reliable, let alone economical.

Just to be technical a moment: With unmanned space flights such as satellite launches, once the hardware is in orbit your job is mostly done. If the launch fails, your expenses are no greater than if it succeeds—you just don't have an orbiting satellite to show for it. All the hardware is disposable and it's just a cost of doing business to throw most of it into the ocean.

By contrast, in manned space flight, at least some of the hardware has to come back, with a live person or persons inside. Life-support systems are extraordinarily complex, the G-forces the human body can stand are limited, and a number of other complications mean that manned space flight is orders of magnitude more challenging than unmanned flight. The small number of privately funded flights by wealthy individuals have resulted, not from companies founded for the explicit purpose of taking rich guys into space, but as a byproduct of Russian space expenditures and a desire on the part of Russia to pay for their existing program any way they can.

I will be very surprised if anything significant comes from Obama's call for private enterprise to take up the slack in our manned space program. If private firms don't suddenly develop a reliable, safe, and economical way to get people into space, then as Krauthammer points out, for the first time since 1962, the United States will have no means of putting humans into space.

The space program began largely as a manifestation of national pride, which is not an emotion that our current President seems inclined to indulge. As glad as I am that the Shuttle is finally going the way of the Wright Brothers' planes, I confess to some unease that for the foreseeable future, we will have to rely on Russia and perhaps other nations for taking our astronauts to the International Space Station and anywhere else up there they'd like to go. This is at a time when China is continuing to boast about its new space program, which registered its latest success in 2008 with a spacewalk in orbit. In historical terms, the Chinese appear to be where the U. S. was in space in about 1965. But despite the Chinese government's other disadvantages such as its repressive nature and despotic tendencies, it does have the advantage of continuity. So when Chinese officials talk about planning lunar missions by around 2017, we should at least take them seriously.

It would be a shame if the U. S. abandons manned spaceflight altogether, although a hiatus for the purpose of planning a safer and more economical means than the Space Shuttle would be justified if we eventually got back on the horse and continued to ride. But right now, that doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Sources: A Reuters dispatch on the Obama budget for space can be found at Charles Krauthammer's column on this decision is at the National Review Online website

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