Time to Shelve the Shuttle

By Robert Mark on August 14th, 2007

America’s first reusable spacecraft is almost 30 years old and it is time to put these tired old machines where they belong … in a museum.

Despite my love of that bright golden plume of fire behind every orbiter at takeoff, and a thundering rumble that shakes the Earth for 10 miles around the Kennedy Space Center, Endeavor’s current problems make it clear the risks of flying these magnificent old machine are simply not worth the risks.

To me, NASA’s decision making is beginning to look too similar to FAA’s.

Right now, NASA is trying to decide whether or not to repair a gash in the external heat shield designed to protect Endeavor when it reenters the atmosphere. The shield was damaged a few days ago by a piece of ice falling off the booster just after liftoff.

NASA allowed the Columbia to begin its return trip to Earth in February 2003 with a similar heatshield affliction and that space craft and crew were lost when the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry.

In January 1986, the shuttle Challenger was also lost on takeoff killing all aboard after a main booster “O” ring disintegrated at liftoff causing that external fuel tank to explode.

After flying airplanes my entire life, I’m not so narrow minded to believe that an occasional accident should be cause for grounding a fleet, even if the accident rate is nearly two per 100 flights, a number that would have grounded any airliner or business airplane years ago.

Deja vu All Over Again

What makes me think the scientific benefit of one more shuttle flight cannot possibly be worth risking another crew has to do with the fact the right now, NASA is deciding whether or not to repair the Endeavor before reentry.

That’s right, they’re trying to decide whether or not the experience of the Columbia crew taught them enough to risk bringing Endeavor back as is.

Forget that this is the same NASA that knowingly allowed astronauts to head into space with incredibly high blood-alcohol levels, forget that the Endeavor crew has been trained to make similar repairs to the spacecraft specifically because of the Columbia accident.

NASA has to think about this before sending a shuttle crewmember on a space walk to make the repair.

And why? Because NASA’s afraid the astronauts could make the problem worse.

There’s a pretty situation to tell us about now that the agency has backed everyone into a corner.

NASA needs to give these pilots and crewmembers every chance to survive the reentry process and get home alive. Sure the repair is a risk, but doing nothing is inconceivable based upon past experience.

Perhaps if NASA grounds the shuttles once these folks are back home safely, someone at the agency can figure out why things keep falling off the spacecraft. They have had almost 30 years after all.

And maybe being forced to admit the shuttles aren’t worth the risk might make NASA think a little further ahead than their next paycheck.  

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5 Responses to “Time to Shelve the Shuttle”

  1. Mal Gormley Says:

    This mission should mark the beginning of the end for virtually ALL manned space flight for a long, long time–including the ISS, whose only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to enable the astronauts to measure each others’ blood pressure at 17,500 MPH, play with Legos, and subject the astronauts to bad music every morning.

    I was a fanatical supporter of Mercury thru Apollo, and for a while, Skylab. But I just don’t see the bang for the buck–or the risk of lives to continue this stupid program on my dime.

    If Branson et al. want to shake down the vanity types for a quarter million a ride for a five minute photo-op–fine. I’m also thrilled to see the Canadians getting into the act. The Russians & the Chinese are wasting their rubles & yen on manned space flight, but hey–let them ignore their nations’ more pressing needs just like we’re doing now.

    Meanwhile, there is so MUCH more to be done, and fortunes to be made from robotic space flight.

    Thanks for bringing up one of my pet peeves, Bob.

  2. Steve M Says:

    “Time to Shelve the Shuttle”

    easy for you to say.. there is alot invested in the shuttle and replacing it isn’t as easy as replacing your television set.

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    Actually Steve, it was not easy for me to say. I have been a fan of the spaceprogram since I was a kid. I remember the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.

    What I wrote wasn’t so much about the space program and the need to stop flying the Shuttle, despite the machine’s age, as it was to say that the folks running NASA are goofy.

    It’s always been tough to separate the science from the agency it self, I think.

    But in this case, the lessons are staring everyone in the face and I just can’t believe NASA is willing ro risk the lives of any more people.

    And you are absolutely right about the investment issue. But saying this is as good as it gets seems to fly in the face of what these folks are trying to accomplish.

    Maybe NASA doesn’t have the money for a new vehicle or the political support to win any, but the technology is there. And again, it is the folks running NASA that scare me.

  4. Eric Says:

    I totally agree with this article. I love the shuttle, but its too old now to be operated safely. I think the main reason NASA keeps it alive is that it has no direct replacement and the minute congress can take funding from NASA to some other boondoggle, it will.

    To me this is less about flight safety than funding.

  5. Garry Conn Says:

    I used to live in Orlando when I was a teen. And man… it was always one of the most beautiful things to see in our backyard watching the shuttle take off in the distant horizon. NASA is amazing. It is so cool to see such an ingenious design hold up through the test of time. Amazing… 30 years! That is amazing. How many other things go unchanged in 30 years time? But on that note, I agree, we really need to push forward with the next design.

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