In the end, a handful of achievements in orbit were not enough to make up for the high costs and risks of America’s space shuttles. The longest dead-end in its space exploration, it is a failure, nevertheless, that the United States is most proud of.
With the scheduled return to Earth next week of Atlantis, the era of the space shuttle will officially come to an end, 30 years after the inaugural flight on April 12, 1981 of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Of these last three decades of coming and going in the cosmos, the United States will only want to remember the “extraordinary accomplishments” that their president, Barack Obama, has just celebrated. They will boast about the fact that the space shuttle was a technical achievement at a time when the engineers who designed it still worked with slide-rules. And, even though the development of digital simulation and ultra-powerful computers make the space shuttles now look like magnificent flying anachronisms, they survived.
But this idea that the shuttle program’s biggest achievement was its longevity is just an illusion. The longest program in NASA’s history is also one that was doomed from the start, in the 1970s. The space shuttle was born at difficult time for the U.S. space agency, which faced major budget cuts as a result of the oil crisis and resulting economic dip.
Those restrictions weakened the program from the beginning. Because they are heavy, the shuttles can’t leave the ground by themselves: they need rocket boosters to tear them away from the earth’s gravitational pull. The budget cuts also meant that designers chose in the end not to implement expensive but vital improvements, such as a back-up system used to protect its crew in emergency situations.
Those repeated compromises explain what happened on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, killing its seven passengers. The crew was not able to escape because of a fire in one of the vessel’s defective rocket boosters.
Just An Illusion
The program survived the disaster. But the dreams on which it was created did not. In developing the shuttle program, NASA envisioned a plane that would fly to space and back with the steadiness of a long haul flight. It also imagined an affordable machine that would not only transport astronauts, but could also ship heavy goods to the cosmos.
The Challenger accident succeeded in demonstrating the limits of NASA’s dreams. To be able to transport men and at the same time materials in one ship was supposed to reduce risks and costs. Instead it increased them. Flights transporting humans, which always demand more precautions, are difficult to accommodate with the transportation of satellites and other objects, which always need more power.
Space shuttle launches are extremely expensive, especially compared to the costs of sending up non-reusable shuttles such as the European civilian Ariane vehicle. The U.S. military realized this as far back as the late 1980s, when it stopped entrusting its spy satellites to the dangerous and costly space shuttles. With this decision, the vessels became little more than luxury vehicles for glamorous missions.
In 1993, one of NASA’s shuttles gloriously succeeded in correcting in orbit the Hubble spatial telescope’s short-sightedness. Then, the program dedicated itself to building the International Space Station (ISS). But this was interrupted by a second disaster on Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia shuttle exploded on its way through the atmosphere back to Earth.
This second disaster crushed the last hopes of those who still wanted to believe in those flying machines. Shuttles are dangerous: they killed 14 astronauts during their missions, which is much more than all the other space programs combined. Even worse, NASA’s lack of organization increased the risks of such a program. Just like with the Challenger incident, the investigation into the Columbia explosion eventually turned into an indictment against the agency, its work methods, its decision-making, its technological bias and its arrogant corporate culture.
The fate of the three remaining shuttles has been sealed for good this time. Their next missions will take place in museum galleries. What’s not clear is what this will mean for U.S. space exploration. Space shuttles, after all, remain the only way for American astronauts to have access to the cosmos.
There in lies the difference with the brilliant and successful Apollo project, which cost 150 billion dollars and whose end did not mean a violent break in space exploration. The space shuttle program, in contrast, failed slowly. It cost 210 billion dollars in all and emptied NASA’s budget. It was shut down too late and its financial costs stifled other projects that should have developed.
The shuttle program began amidst an acute budget crisis. It ends at a time when the U.S. government’s budget crisis is even worse. This lack of money, plus a lack of public interest, could mean that with the failure of the space shuttle program, American space ambitions could be permanently paralyzed.
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Photo - NASA