[FoRK] Save the Astronauts -- Kill the Shuttle
Fri Jul 29 14:34:49 PDT 2005
For once, I agree 100% with Ian.
What's amazing is how well Gregg Easterbrook analyzed the
costs, flaws, and dangers of the shuttle program in 1980,
before the first-ever launch:
[reproduced at bottom]
At the time, anyone enthused about space travel (like
9-year-old me) probably dismissed him as a wet blanket.
It's time to stop killing astronauts for billions of dollars
per fatality. Cancel the program and put the savings into
expanded prizes for private spaceflight achievments. I
guarantee the private sector can kill astronauts for one-tenth
to one-hundredth the cost.
And rather than killing just workaday astronauts, the
private sector has a fair chance of killing a billionaire
space dilettante. In fact, I would even offer a consolation
prize to the first space venture that manages to
inadvertently kill a billionaire. Call it the XXXXXXXXX
prize, for the number of zeros in a billion. [*]
[*] This idea originally arose in a conversation with Anil
Dash around the time of the SpaceShipOne X-Prize launches.
Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) wrote:
> The Shuttle project has become an incredibly bloated white elephant,
> there's almost no scientific benefit to shoving men up into space to,
> effectively, watch over what a computer is (already) doing, and it's
> pretty-much the least cost-effective space delivery mechanism ever
> conceived. The airframes are more than 20 years old and require
> complete structural refits after every mission, are exhibiting fatigue
> throughout their construction, and are killing astronauts at an
> alarming rate while sucking up cash at an epic scale.
> And the continued funding of this waste of space (love this pun!) is
> preventing NASA from allocating enough funding to replace the thing,
> meaning that they'll probably continue to fly the thing until all 6
> flyable airframes are toasted. The Russians, meanwhile, may have done
> it better.
> Heaping money on a project in order to keep Nerd Farms abstract of the
> realities of market dynamics can only displace reality for so long,
> until things start exploding and cratering in violent, dramatic, fashion.
# Beam Me Out Of This Death Trap, Scotty
# * 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Goodbye, /Columbia/
# * By Gregg Easterbrook <#byline>*
# /This April 1980 Washington Monthly cover story on the problems and
# progress of NASA's space shuttle program was written one year before
# Columbia's first launch in 1981. To view a larger image of the original
# cover, click here.
# The most expensive flying machine ever constructed sputtered and smacked
# through the low waves, kicking up spray, straining mightily to take
# flight. It had been bobbing by the dock in Long Beach harbor for two
# days that November of 1947. Now the Spruce Goose was trying to fly.
# People couldn't take their eyes off it. Who could comprehend its size!
# Three hundred-foot wingspan, seven-story tail, 200 tons of plane with
# room for 700 soldiers. It upstaged even the ocean liners lounging
# nearby. There it was, $25 million worth of prototype seaplane, skating
# along toward take-off, engines cackling and fuming. Howard Hughes,
# America's most publicized aviator, designed it, swore by it, and was at
# the controls. "If it doesn't fly, I'll leave the country forever," he
# had promised. Now his Spruce Goose was churning through the water,
# trying to lurch skyward, better get up soon or we'll run out of harbor ....
# And... it's aloft! The beast flies! Four hundred thousand pounds of wood
# and wires break the bonds! Alas, not for long it splashes right back
# down, hull groaning. The flight crew hears the sound of cracks here and
# there. Crawling out the hatch back at the dock, the engineers look
# slightly pale. Can't call the flight an unqualified success. The Spruce
# Goose had flown about a mile, rising to the tree trimming height of 70
# The crowds cheered, however, and the next day The New York Times pleaded
# for more federal money to continue the project. "Had our armed forces
# had a fleet of such planes during World War II," it explained, "many
# battles might have been won sooner, and many lives saved."
# A fleet? A fleet of these sorry pelicans? Hadn't it occurred to anyone
# that the Spruce Goose--with throttles thrown wide open, no cargo, and
# only a few tons of fuel where dozens would be needed--had managed to
# make 70 feet for 45 seconds? That it was so badly damaged by this sortie
# it would never fly again? How would we win battles with this plane--make
# the enemy die laughing? Couldn't anybody see the aviator's new clothes
# were not clothes at all?
# The Spruce Goose remains today in the hangar where it came to rest 33
# years ago. The record for most expensive flying machine has long since
# been surpassed. There's something heavier, too. Down at Cape Kennedy the
# National Aeronautics and Space Administration is tinkering with the
# champion, the $1 billion, 2,300 ton space shuttle Columbia. Columbia is
# the first of at least four space shuttles. It will blast into space like
# a rocket, and sail back like an airplane. It isn't a "capsule," as they
# called the Mercury orbiters, or a "module," as they called the Apollo
# moon machine. It's a spaceship, designed to be used over and over again,
# instead of thrown away like a rocket. Much cheaper than rockets, much
# more versatile, it is the key to the next phase of space exploration.
# The space shuttle is to the Apollo module what the DC-3 was to Wright's
# flyer. With a fleet of these ....
# But something doesn't look right about the astronaut's new clothes,
# either. The Columbia has yet to fly. It's several years behind schedule,
# with no imminent prospect, despite official assurances, that it will fly
# at all. But more important, if it does fly, it won't do anything those
# old throw-away rockets couldn't do. You've probably heard, for instance,
# that the space shuttle will retrieve damaged satellites and return them
# to earth for repair. Not so. It can't. Simply and flatly, can't. And,
# according to The Washington Monthly's sources, flying the shuttle will
# cost more, not less, than flying those old disposable rockets.
# If you haven't heard this, don't be surprised. After all, reporters
# clustered around Howard Hughes for years, begging to know when the
# Spruce Goose would fly and scribbling down the predicted dates. Nobody
# spent much time asking what it would do once it got up there. Getting it
# up there was the drama. What it would do was... well, there must be a
# reason or they wouldn't build it, would they?
# *Waning Moon*
# Even as the Apollo 11 moonship was being primed for what President Nixon
# called "the most important event sine Creation"--the August 1969 moon
# landing--plans for a space shuttle were being drafted. By spring of
# 1969, Apollo's impending success seemed assured. The technological
# precision of Apollo was nothing short of remarkable; its builders and
# astronauts accomplished more than even the most optimistic among them
# predicted. But even NASA officials had to admit that being on the moon
# didn't amount to much. Getting there was all the fun. Some space venture
# had to be found to succeed Apollo.
# A special White House "task group" was formed to select the next
# program. Roy Day, now a top official for the shuttle program, was pulled
# off Apollo to help NASA order its options. "It was assumed from the
# start that we needed some sort of manned mission," Day explains. "The
# progress of high technology and national prestige demanded it." After
# summarily dismissing less-expensive but less-glamorous mechanized space
# exploration (see "Battlestar Bureauctica" on page 42), NASA devised
# these possibilities: a manned landing on Mars; a manned fly-by (approach
# without landing) of Mars or Venus; a permanent moonbase; a permanent
# orbiting space station, with a shuttle vehicle to supply it; or, at last
# resort, the shuttle only.
# Planetary missions were rejected as technically feasible but absurdly
# expensive. (A single Mars flight, requiring a nuclear-propelled
# spaceship traveling for years, was pegged at $100 billion. Apollo cost
# $20 billion.) The moonbase was nixed as useless. The space station
# sparked a lot of interest, but it too was overwhelmingly expensive. Its
# components would be so heavy, NASA's entire budget would be required to
# pay for the launch rockets--to say nothing, as space proponents are wont
# to do, of building or servicing it. The task group members reasoned that
# a reusable space shuttle would be the logical first step to prepare for
# a space station. Only the economy of a reusable shuttle could make the
# space station affordable.
# The shuttle was to be nothing more than that--a space truck to lug
# things back and forth to orbit. The craft itself would have no
# scientific function. It was assumed by task group members that, once the
# shuttle was approved, somebody, could devise some missions for it.
# "First you have to get the horse," said Dr. Jerry Gray, former NASA
# scientist and now public policy director of the American Institute of
# Aeronautics and Astronautics, "then you decide where to ride him."
# *A Horse By Committee*
# NASA longed to abandon the familiar one-shot rocket-whose stages, once
# fired, went tumbling into the sea or burned up, taking their titanium
# castings and navigational computers with them. The Saturn V moon rocket,
# for example, weighed 3,050 tons at blast-off, and you got exactly seven
# tons back--that dinky little "command module" the men rode in. "We
# wanted to have only miniscule involvement with the rocket concept in the
# future," Day says.
# At first NASA asked for an all-reusable shuttle. Grumman and
# McDonnell-Douglas came up with a plan that called for two huge winged
# ships, each with its own pilots and engines, mated piggyback. They would
# blast off together, with the larger ship-the booster-spitting fire for
# the first 10 to 20 miles of altitude. Then, fuel spent, it would circle
# back to land like an airplane. The smaller ship would continue into
# orbit, drop its cargo, reenter the atmosphere, and also land like a
# plane: NASA believed this system would be economical to operate, but
# would cost $10 billion to build. The Office of Management and Budget
# balked. Ten billion, it gasped--out of the question!
# What could you do, OMB asked, for $5 billion? Design of the horse was
# referred to committee, where a compromise was found. A partially
# reusable shuttle was conceived.
# In this plan, the shuttle's main part would be the "orbiter." That's the
# section that gets a name, like Columbia. It would be a winged
# rocket-powered flying machine about the size and weight of a DC-9
# airliner. This orbiter would carry 65,000 pounds of cargo into a low
# orbit, stashing the goods in a 60-by-15-foot bay. It would be flown by a
# crew of two to seven astronauts. Not ridden by strapped-down guinea pigs
# like those capsules and modules, but, down by pilots. Flown during
# landing, at least; the rest of the time they would pretty much watch the
# instruments. But there would be people in control--a concept popular
# with people, who seem to be less in control of things with every passing
# The shuttle ship would be mounted piggyback on a cavernous 150-foot long
# fuel tank carrying the frigid liquid gases to power the shuttle's main
# engines. Strapped to it would be two booster rockets, powered by
# reliable solid fuel. Their motors would be the fiercest ever imagined
# generating 2.5 million pounds of thrust each, as opposed to 470,000
# pounds for each of the shuttle's three main engines. Those insatiable
# trolls would burn through their fuel in scarcely a moment.
# Bolts and hoses fastened, the shuttle spaceship, its fuel tank, and the
# boosters would blast off together from Cape Kennedy, a tremendous troika
# of power. At an altitude of 20 miles, the spent boosters would fall
# away, floating down on parachutes. They would be fished out of the sea
# and used again. The shuttle's own engines would keep firing until, nine
# minutes after launch, their fuel was exhausted. Then the empty fuel tank
# would tumble away, to burn up in the atmosphere. (Since it's only a
# tank, NASA reasoned, it's cheaper to let it fry than bolt on all the
# navigational and heat-shielding hardware needed to get it back.).
# The shuttle would go about its business in orbit. Lacking main-engine
# fuel, it would employ two small reaction rockets for maneuverability and
# to slow it down for reentry. Once back in the air, it would glide toward
# a landing field, setting down like an airplane but "dead stick"--without
# any power to compensate for miscalculations. After landing it would be
# refitted, mated to a new tank, strapped to two refilled boosters, and
# blasted off again.
# Estimating a cost of $5 billion to $6 billion, NASA got its
# launch-commit for this design in 1972. The agency explained that having
# a crew of pilots aboard would add "flexibility" and "new dimensions" to
# space flight, but otherwise NASA wasn't terribly specific about what the
# astronauts would do. It was assumed that with the horse under
# construction some carriage maker would build something for it to pull--a
# space mission only a shuttle could handle. Meanwhile, petting the animal
# became an obsession. It would be "the dawn of a new age" (Nixon), a
# "breakthrough" (Ford), the first "commuting to space" (Carter).
# James Gehrig, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee's space
# and science subcommittee, sums up the two features that shuttle backers
# have cited again and again: its "wonderful advantages of higher payloads
# and lower costs." NASA planned the first launch for 1977. Didn't quite
# make it that year, and won't this year. NASA officials won't be too
# upset if it doesn't fly next year either because when you're not
# launching them, you don't have to explain awkward things like higher
# costs and lower payloads.
# *Pole Sitting*
# Down at Cape Kennedy, Columbia lies in an assembly hangar, imprisoned in
# scaffolding. Arc lights gleam off its impossibly smooth surface. They
# shine round-the-clock, as 500 technicians work double ten-hour shifts,
# six days a week, trying to make the shuttle spaceworthy. Columbia was
# supposed to be finished last March, when it was transferred from the
# factory of the prime contractor, Rockwell International. Instead, it
# arrived at the Cape only 75 percent complete, according to NASA. No one
# is certain when--or even if--the remaining work will be finished.
# The drydocked Columbia represents at once all the shuttle program's
# problems. They are: delays; cost overruns; performance underruns; and
# lack of work for the horse to do. Delays, the least important problem,
# are the easiest to understand. "People don't appreciate that the
# shuttle, as a technical goal, is much more ambitious than the moon
# program," says Eugene Covert, an MIT professor and rocket-propulsion
# expert. "The schedule couldn't possibly have been met."
# Considering what the Columbia is supposed to do, it's no surprise that
# it didn't fly in 1977, or in 1978, or in 1979, and can't fly now. The
# rockets it is supposed to replace have always been throw-away affairs
# for very pragmatic engineering reasons: the fiendish forces of space
# flight twist and sizzle machines into scrap. Rocket engines are
# essentially explosions with a hole at one end. Exploding gases roar out
# the hole, shoving the rocket in the opposite direction. The act of
# firing does such violence to the rocket engine, immolating and warping
# its components, it's impractical to use again even if you can get it
# back. Yet the shuttle's main engines will have internal pressures three
# times greater than those of any previous large engine, NASA says and the
# goal is to use them on 55 flights before an overhaul.
# <https://www.kable.com/pub/wmth/subscribe.asp>To truly grasp the
# challenge of building a space shuttle, think about its flight. The ship
# includes a 60-by-15-foot open space, narrow wings, and a large cabin
# where men must be provided that delicately slender range of temperatures
# and pressures they can endure. During ascent, the shuttle must withstand
# 3 Gs of stress--inertial drag equivalent to three times its own weight.
# While all five engines are screaming, there will be acoustic vibrations
# reaching 167 decibels, enough to kill an unprotected person. In orbit,
# the shuttle will drift through -250?F. vacuum, what engineers call the
# "cold soak." It's cold enough to embrittle and shatter most materials.
# During reentry, the ship's skin goes from cold soak to 2,700?F., hot
# enough to transform many metals into Silly Putty. Then the shuttle must
# glide along, under control, at speeds up to Mach 25, three times faster
# than any other piloted aircraft has ever flown. After reentry, it
# cascades through the air without power; finally thunking down onto the
# runway at 220 m.p.h. The like-sized DC-9 lands, /with/ power, at 130
# m.p.h. Rockets are throwaway contraptions in part so that no one piece
# ever has to endure such a wild variety of conditions. The shuttle's
# design goal is to take this nightmare ride 100 times.
# The main cause of delay is currently the shuttle's refractory tiles,
# which disperse the heat of reentry from the ship's nose and fuselage.
# Columbia must be fitted out with 33,000 of these tiles, each to be
# applied individually, each unique in shape. The inch-thick tiles, made
# of pyrolized carbon, are amazing in two respects. They can be several
# hundred degrees hot on one side while remaining cool to the touch on the
# other. They do not boil away like the ablative heat shieldings of
# capsules and modules; they can be used indefinitely. But they're also a
# bit of a letdown in another respect--they're so fragile you can hardly
# touch them without shattering them.
# "The tiles are the long pole holding up the tent," says Mike Malkin,
# NASA's shuttle project director. Fixing them to the Columbia without
# breaking them is like trying to eat a bar of Bonomo Turkish Taffy
# without cracking it. Most of the technicians swarming over Columbia are
# trying to glue down tiles. The tiles break so often, and must be
# remolded so painstakingly, the installation rate is currently one tile
# per technician per week. All this mounting was supposed to be finished
# before Columbia left Rockwell's factory. When it wasn't, the work had to
# be resumed at the Cape. "We've had to put up what amounts to a
# manufacturing facility there," says Walter Kapryan, who retired as the
# Cape's shuttle project director last spring. "The most we ever did for
# Apollo was a little patch-wiring." NASA sources privately acknowledge
# that Columbia was taken to the Cape in unfinished condition partly for
# public-relations value--to make it appear that preparations were
# accelerating. The move also allows computer testing to proceed while the
# tiles are being mounted. This exercise may have been practical, but it
# was staggering in cost: $50 million extra to attach the tiles at the
# Cape, according to congressional sources.
# Some suspect the tile mounting is the least of Columbia's difficulties.
# "I don't think anybody appreciates the depths of the problems," Kapryan
# says. The tiles are the most important system NASA has ever designed as
# "safe life." That means there is no back-up for them. If they fail, the
# shuttle burns on reentry. If enough fall off, the shuttle may become
# unstable during landing, and thus un-pilotable. The worry runs deep
# enough that NASA investigated installing a crane assembly in Columbia so
# the crew could inspect and repair damaged tiles in space. (Verdict:
# Can't be done. You can hardly do it on the ground.)
# According to the computers, as long as you can bring the shuttle back
# into the atmosphere, you can fly it to the airfield even if the tiles
# are damaged. Former Apollo astronaut Richard Cooper doubts the computers
# know what they're meeping about. Many of the projections are based on
# the magnificent accuracy of the Apollo landings. Apollo went to the
# moon, came back, and dropped all its little manned modules into a target
# area about the size of Los Angeles International Airport. But Apollo
# modules were ballistic projectiles. They were slightly asymmetrical and
# thus had a little lift for control, but basically they fell like
# well-aimed stones. The science of ballistics is much more precise and
# predictable than the art of flying. To assume that experience with one
# is the same as experience with the other is to confuse a slingshot with
# a seagull. The only way to find out about something as big and balky as
# Columbia, Cooper says, is to launch the thing and see what happens.
# Computers have never flown with the unpredictable combination of damaged
# tiles that a shuttle may experience. They've never been whacked by a
# sudden, nonprogrammed gust of jetstream wind. They've never flounced
# like a twig on the crazy rapids of "bias"--the bland physics term for
# unexplained variations in the earth's gravitational and magnetic fields.
# These are the wild, uncharted rivers of space. Unknown; unknowable;
# beyond programming. To find out if your ship can cope with them, you
# have to take it up there.
# *One Year And Holding*
# The people struggling with the tiles serve a useful function. They make
# the rest of the project look good by comparison. "You have to keep your
# pole a little shorter than everybody else's," says a NASA engineer.
# "That's why everybody likes to be under the tent of tile delays." The
# Air Force, a partner in the shuttle project, is happy to be there under
# the tent. It's supposed to build a small rocket booster, the Inertial
# Upper Stage (IUS), to ride in the shuttle bay. IUS, will float away from
# the shuttle and fire satellites into the high altitudes that shuttles
# can't reach. It's based on conventional throw-away technology and should
# be the easiest part of the project, but it's two years behind schedule
# and $144 million over budget. Yet Secretary of Defense Harold Brown
# recently assured Congress that IUS is not a problem--because of "revised
# operational requirements and shuttle program delays."
# The shuttle's main engine is also lurking under the tent. Columbia is to
# be powered by the first large, high-performance "cryogenic" rocket
# engine, burning liquid hydrogen for fuel instead of kerosene. Cryogenie
# engines can achieve the impossible dream-combustion efficiency of 99
# percent. But the shuttle's cryogenic engines have the annoying habit of
# blowing up. Not conducive to 55 reuses.
# The failures, of course, are taking place on the test stand. During
# development, it's assumed that some engines will blow up; pushing them
# to the limit is part of testing. But the shuttle engines often start
# flaming under normal operational conditions. And then there was this
# embarrassing snag that made checking their reliability all but
# impossible. Although the engines must fire for 520 seconds dining a
# shuttle flight, Rockwell's test stand held only enough fuel for 300
# For a time, engine progress looked so bleak that Congress convened a
# panel of National Academy of Science members to decide if the motors
# would ever work. Just after the engineers managed to get single engines
# to fire properly for the full duration, for instance, they tried to fire
# three simultaneously, as would be required during a launch. All three
# blew up; acoustic vibrations from one would destroy the next.
# Meanwhile, down at the Johnson Space enter in Houston, astronaut
# preparation was months behind even the short-pole schedule. The reason?
# Computer-simulators, used to stage mock failures in the flight trainer,
# weren't working. This was a triumph of accurate simulation, but
# otherwise not amusing.
# Despite these problems--which have been widely discussed in the trade
# press since as early as 1977-NASA made routine announcements that a
# launch was right around the corner. The day the corner would be turned
# was never specified. "You'll notice that NASA always says the first
# shuttle will launch within the year," says Dr. Marshall Kaplan, a Penn
# State physicist. "I call this a 'one year and holding' countdown." The
# routine came close to slapstick comedy in March 1979. A cluster of three
# shuttle engines had just caught fire at NASA's test stand, a scant nine
# seconds into a test. The partially finished Columbia was mounted on the
# back of its 747 ferry plane for the flight to Cape Kennedy. The instant
# the 747 nosed off the field, Columbia began to rattle itself to pieces.
# Tiles flew off; tape and electrical connections began flapping
# everywhere. The big jet hastily banked back to the field and rolled to a
# stop. There was so much damage to Columbia after 17 minutes in the
# air--a Sunday afternoon stroll disabling a spaceship!--that it took a
# week to get her ready to go up again.
# So on a fine morning m March 1979 with engines blowing up, pilots
# playing parcheesi to pass the time, Columbia melting like an icicle in
# routine flight NASA announced that the first shuttle launch would be
# December 1979. History will record that there were no rolled eyes in
# Congress, no catcalls and guffaws at press conferences, no panic on the
# floor at Lloyd's of London. December 1979? Right. Sounds fine. Everybody
# wrote it down.
# Since then the outlook has brightened considerably. The engines have
# been fired in unison several times. If it turns out they work, they will
# take their rightful place among the premier achievements of modern
# engineering (see "Because Out There is There" on page 49). Problems
# involving tiles continue, with residual doubt about "whether they can be
# relied on at all," according to the General Accounting Office. Countdown
# is back to minus one year and holding. NASA administrator Robert Frosch
# says Columbia will fly "between late 1980 and the first quarter of
# 1981." Cape Kennedy observers say the "back end" of that schedule is
# *A Flooded Basement*
# There's good and there's bad to being stuck under the tent. The good
# part is that Congress throws you money, hoping you will come out.
# Until recently, the shuttle program had an admirable record for cost
# control. But NASA had made its $5 billion to $6 billion projection based
# on "success-oriented planning." That means it assumed everything would
# work the first time. Budgets were drawn as if redesigns would never be
# needed, as if no contingencies would arise, as if 520-second engine
# tests could be conducted with 300-second tanks.
# Of course, NASA planners knew everything would not work the first time.
# In a complex technological project, very little works at first; delays
# and failures are perfectly normal. But to help the shuttle win budget
# approval, NASA estimated costs as if there would be no problems,
# according to Dan Cassidy of the House subcommittee that oversees space
# To be "success-oriented," NASA decided to test shuttle components only
# after assembling them together, instead of individually as had been the
# case with all previous spacecraft. If the bundle worked, great. But if
# it didn't, the damn thing had to be torn down and tested from scratch.
# NASA budgeted for only a couple of backup engines. When they started
# blowing up, as every engineer knew they would--wanted them to!--the
# scheduling went berserk. Sitting around waiting for new engine parts to
# be built can cost the program up to $7.5 million a day in idle
# facilities and personnel, Cassidy says much more than what would have
# been spent had the costs been predicted honestly in the first place. "So
# now we're throwing money at it," former NASA official Gray declared.
# In 1979 NASA asked for, and got, a $220 million supplemental
# appropriation for Columbia. Then it asked for another $185 million, and
# got that. This January it asked for still another $300 million extra.
# Money is also being shifted from other NASA projects, mainly planetary
# probes that are interesting but lack immediacy, and from construction of
# the other three shuttles, into patching Columbia. In all, shuttle
# construction is budgeted at $1.8 billion in fiscal 1981--$800 million
# more than NASA said it would need, according to the Congressional
# Research Service.
# By the time all four shuttles are built, the bill for development and
# manufacture will come to $13 billion, GAO estimates. It'll hit $16.5
# billion if you figure in NASA salaries and construction of a second
# shuttle launch base for the military at Vandenberg Air Force Base in
# California. Asked about the supposed bargain basement approach of
# "success-oriented" planning, Richard Cooper observes "Some basements get
# Considering the ambitious nature of the shuttle program, the overruns
# are not unspeakable. The promised $5 billion inflates to about $8
# billion today. If it really costs $13 billion, that's within reason. And
# NASA wants you to remember all the money we'll save when Columbia flies.
# No more throw-away hardware! No more zillion-dollar towers of power
# crumbling into ashes downrange over the Azores! The shuttle's promise of
# cheap "commuting to space" will finally be realized. That's what they
# say. Fine--if you don't mind paying more for a "cheap" launch than for
# rockets you throw away.
# *Economy At Any Price*
# Walk into NASA headquarters with a long enough line of credit, and you
# can buy yourself the top floor of a rocket. For $23 million, for
# instance, you can buy the services of a Delta, a rocket that will toss
# 2,750 pounds of whatever you have into the 22,000-mile geosynchronous
# orbit used by communications satellites. For $33 million, you can get
# the more powerful Atlas-Centaur, which could kick a small payload out of
# earth orbit altogether. If you plunk down $50 million or more, you could
# probably arrange to get a Titan III, the rocket the Air Force uses to
# launch military satellites. A Titan III, the Clydesdale of space horses,
# will heave 29,000 pounds into due-east, low orbit.
# The money you pay is "total cost incurred"--NASA's price for everything
# associated with the launch, covering the rocket itself, the fuel, the
# command personnel to fire it, and the guys who sweep up the pad
# afterwards. Commercial rocket launches, by law, must be financially
# If you want one of these rides, sign up now, because NASA plans to
# terminate all throw-away rocket launches as soon as the shuttle is working.
# "The shuttle will be able to carry three Delta-class payloads," says
# Chet Lee, the shuttle pricing director. That means, for instance, three
# communications satellites and the extra boosters needed to push them to
# high orbits. To launch three Delta-class payloads on Deltas would cost
# three times $23 million--$69 million.
# Compared to this, the shuttle looks like a fire sale. You can book
# Columbia for $22.4 million, Lee says. That's all you pay. A third the
# price of those wasteful old throw-away rockets. This is the official
# rationalization of the official contention that the shuttle will be
# Let's take a closer look at the numbers. NASA is using the conventional
# business technique of a loss-leader. For the first three years of
# shuttle flights, Lee says, "We'll make no attempt to recover all of our
# direct operational costs." This is necessary, he maintains, to attract
# customers away from disposable rockets and into the shuttle. Seems odd,
# since NASA would only be stealing customers from itself. So how was
# $22.4 million arrived at?
# Back in 1972, when shuttle designs were still on the table, a consulting
# company called Mathematica did some cost-benefit studies for the
# project. Mathematica estimated that, under certain conditions, an
# individual shuttle flight would have a direct cost (fuel, command
# salaries, sweeping the pad) of $22.4 million. In 1975, NASA froze that
# number. It started selling contracts for shuttle launches at $22.4
# million per, for the first three years of flight--a guaranteed price
# with no escalator for inflation.
# The spirit of '75 is great for satellite customers, since the cost of
# regular rockets is inflating right along with the rest of reality. The
# 1975 estimate inflates to about $32 million today--still cheaper than
# our three Deltas.
# What happens to the cost of shuttle flights at the end of three years?
# "Then our direct-launch price will go up to reflect true costs," Lee
# says. All the evidence is that "true" costs will be high indeed. Flying
# and refitting the shuttle--even assuming all goes well--will be more
# expensive than predicted. All the things that you used to throw away and
# forget about now must be returned to earth, fixed, and cobbled together
# for another launch. Lee says the "true cost" of a launch is "about 25
# percent" more than will be charged in the first three years. The "true
# cost" of one flight of the shuttle thus approaches $40 million. Costs
# keep rising, like a rocket gushing flame and trembling to get off the
# pad. But NASA says the shuttle is still a bargain, payload for payload.
# Better keep a close eye on that cost-rocket. Once those things get
# moving, they really pick up speed fast ....
# *Turn Down the Volume*
# What was the basis of Mathematica's cost projections? The analysts
# assumed that the shuttle fleet would stage at least 50 flights a year.
# With each vehicle having a 10-year life, that meant at least 500 flights
# # over a 10-to-12-year period. (At one point in 1976, NASA was projecting
# # 75 flights a year. The number has been dropping steadily since, and now
# # stands at "around 40 to 50 flights a year," Lee says.) As with any
# # volume merchandising, the more flights there are, the lower the cost of
# # each individual flight. So it was important to project lots of flights.
# These are "safe life" numbers.
# Fifty flights a year? For what? Mathematica assumed there would be 20
# flights a year for something called Spacelab. Spacelab is a little
# workshop that rides in the shuttle bay. The shuttle goes up and opens
# its doors; scientists crawl from the cabin into Spacelab; they sail
# around doing experiments; then the shuttle snaps closed and brings the
# whole package back, to be outfitted for another flight. Spacelab is
# being built by the European Space Agency. ESA is paying for its first
# flight. (NASA likes to give the impression ESA is paying for all its
# flights. It is not. NASA will pay for everything after the second
# Spacelab cruise, Doug Lord, the Spacelab director, notes.)
# Will Spacelab be used 20 times a year? "I can't imagine what for," says
# Albert Cameron, a Harvard physicist who is chairman of the Space Science
# Board of the National Academy of Science. "The duration of the flight is
# so short," he explained, pointing out that it will ordinarily last only
# four to seven days, "there's way too little time to carry out any
# meaningful experiments." Even Lord acknowledges that the applications of
# Spacelab are limited: "It's really an interim step, to demonstrate to
# the world that a permanent space station is a worthwhile idea."
# Meanwhile, will the interim step fly 20 times a year--a total of 200
# times? "Not a chance," says an informed NASA source.
# Also listed in the calculation are six flights a year for communications
# satellites, like those made famous by Comsat, Inc. Communications
# satellites fit Columbia just perfectly; NASA says three of them could go
# up on one shuttle ride.
# How many communications satellites are now being launched? Two a year.
# Intelsat, the international consortium that is the largest private space
# user (Comsat is part of it), plans to send up two satellites in the next
# three years, a spokesman says. The satellite communications business is
# expanding, with RCA, Western Union, AT&T, and SBS (a venture of IBM,
# Aetna, and Comsat) planning to enter. But to require six shuttle
# launches a year, there would have to be 18 satellites. "Barring some
# extraordinary breakthrough in technology," says an informed
# communications industry source, "that's inconceivable."
# So how many shuttle flights a year seem reasonable? Maybe 20, insiders
# say, with the largest share devoted to launching defense satellites.
# Suddenly, like a rocket veering off course, NASA's numbers are shaking.
# If there aren't 50 flights a year, the cost of each flight shoots up
# from the projected "true" cost of $40 million. It's getting closer and
# closer to the $69-million cost of using three Deltas, the throw-away
# equivalent of a shuttle.
# *Take A Walk*
# But we all know there's something the shuttle can do that rockets can't.
# The shuttle can recover damaged satellites. This is a widely publicized
# aspect of shuttle mythology--grabbing and returning to earth a satellite
# that has worn out or broken down, so that it can be repaired and
# returned to orbit later. According to a GAO study, fully 75 percent of
# the shuttle program cost savings are based on Mathematica's assumptions
# about how much we will benefit from recovering crippled satellites.
# The only problems are:
# * (a) The shuttle can't retrieve satellites;
# * (b) Nobody wants them back in the first place.
# More than two thirds of the satellites being launched are sent out to
# geosynchronous orbits--22,000 miles up, where, relative to a spot on the
# rotating earth, they hang in the same place all the time. Others are
# sent to nearly-as-high sun-synchronous orbits, where they follow the
# movements of the sun.
# The shuttle, on the other hand, orbits at 200 miles. The highest it
# could reach, unloaded, would be 600 miles. Routinely, the shuttle will
# fly to 200 miles and release a satellite mounted on the LUS booster, or
# a smaller booster called a SUS (for Spinning Upper Stage). The booster
# then blasts the satellite out to its final destination. Once there, it
# is beyond the shuttle's reach. Period. When something is 22,000 miles
# away, getting 200 miles closer isn't much of a help.
# Cassidy of the House space subcommittee acknowledges this is "a flaw in
# the system."
# Like most mythology, the "retrieve and return" business has a basis in
# fact. When the shuttle was being planned, there was supposed to be a
# "space tug." This was to be a robot rocket vehicle of some kind,
# assembled in space and left there. The shuttle would bring it fuel and
# satellites to move around: The tug would take a new satellite out to
# high orbit, then go find a damaged one and tow it back down to the shuttle.
# The tug proposal has been killed. Every year NASA sticks it back in the
# budget under a different name, and every year it gets killed again. It
# gets killed because people don't want their satellites back. "A
# communications satellite has absolutely no salvage value," says Larry
# Weekly, spokesman for SBS, Inc. "They almost never fail, and by the time
# they wear out, after seven to ten years, they're obsolete. It's much
# cheaper to build a new one." Especially, Weekly adds, since the cost of
# a new satellite--now running $20 million to $40 million--is likely, to
# be less than the cost of sending a repairman after an old one.
# Some satellites are parked in low orbits, within Columbia's reach. But
# even then they may exceed its grasp. A shuttle has little maneuvering
# power; basically, it can only intercept things in its launch path. Few
# existing satellites are in orbital inclinations the shuttle uses. NASA
# is adjusting for this by launching satellites worth
# recovering--$90-million spy-eyes and telescope-observatory
# satellites--into paths the shuttle will cross. But this doesn't
# guarantee that Columbia will be able to cope with them. When satellites
# get into trouble, they often suffer loss of stabilit--the gyros fail and
# the little robot starts tumbling wildly. NASA acknowledges that the
# shuttle wouldn't even try to recover an unstable satellite. How could
# it? What could it grab hold of? Would you pull a billion-dollar
# spaceship under a rumbling stellar bowling ball that might come caroming
# into your ice-fragile tiles?
# *Warp Speed*
# NASA has been casting about for other reasons to stage shuttle flights.
# The agency hoped that companies would sign up for space manufacturing
# tests--the search for the fabled flawless ball bearing. But so far,
# according to Ed Fritz of GAO, only one American firm has shown any
# interest. And, in order to entice it, NASA has promised to foot the bill
# for the full cost of the test flight, Fritz says. In return for
# accepting this fiscal hardship, the company gets the patent rights to
# anything it might develop.
# The price per flight keeps climbing beyond $40 million, as the number of
# plausible missions decreases. But it's still less than $69 million for
# those three Deltas. Less, that is, until you remember that the Deltas
# were already around. You didn't have to spend $13 billion to develop
# them. NASA has repeatedly noted that there will be no attempt to
# recover--amortize, you might say--the development cost of the "cheaper"
# Suppose the shuttles fly 500 sorties, as predicted, and cost $13 billion
# to build. That works out to an investment cost of $26 million per
# flight. Add that to the $40 million "true cost" of a launch. Suddenly a
# shuttle launch costs $66 million just about the same as three Deltas.
# Now, suppose the shuttles fly only the pessimistic 200 flights. The
# investment cost leaps to $65 million per flight. Suddenly the total cost
# of a shuttle flight becomes $105 million--almost twice the cost of three
# of those wasteful Delta rockets.
# Of course, it once cost money to develop the Delta and the Titan and
# what all, and that money is not amortized to each flight. But those
# rockets are already developed. That money's already spent.
# "Oh, the shuttle will definitely cost more than equivalent expendable
# rockets," said Kaplan plainly. "The payoff is not in dollars, but in
# flexibility and expanded horizons."
# *Weight A Minute ... *
# They didn't talk much about "expanded horizons" back in 1972 when NASA
# was selling the shuttle as an economy move. They did talk about
# flexibility, though, because the shuttle payload would, be greater than
# the other rockets'. It was supposed to be able to carry 65,000 pounds
# into a low orbit, launching due-east. (Because the earth spins west to
# east, rockets launching east get a boost from the earth's own momentum.
# Launching north or south to reach polar orbits bucks the spin. Nobody
# launches west.)
# Here the "economy" calculations reach escape velocity. The 65,000-pound
# payload is being quietly dropped, too. "We'll be lucky if we hit 30,000
# due-east," says Kaplan. Columbia and Challenger, the second shuttle, are
# turning out to weigh much more than planned. Every pound added to the
# shuttle is a pound subtracted from the payload.
# The external fuel tank, for instance, is full of oxygen and hydrogen
# cooled to -400?F. to make the gases flow as liquids. Ice will form on
# the tank. When Columbia's tiles started popping off in a stiff breeze,
# it occurred to engineers that ice chunks from the tank would crash into
# the tiles during the sonic chaos of launch: Goodbye, Columbia. So
# insulation was added to the tank. But while thermal cladding solves the
# ice problem, it adds weight. The entire vehicle, loaded, weighs 4.5
# million pounds. Say you add one percent. Doesn't sound like much. One
# percent comes to 45,000 pounds. That's almost all of the payload.
# Discovery and Atlantis, the third and fourth shuttles, are slated to
# have stronger tiles and lighter components. They may be able to lift
# 65,000 pounds. Meanwhile, remember the Titan III, lifting 29,000 pounds
# for about $50 million? "Getting only a 30,000 payload from the shuttle
# is a giant step backward, compared to the Titan," says Albert Cameron.
# "But it's a moot point now to argue about the practical virtues of the
# rocket. NASA has eliminated it. You have no choice but to launch on the
# shuttle, do you?" Indeed, NASA has even eliminated the word "rocket."
# Jack Mahon, NASA's Expendable Launch Director, says they are now called
# "ELVs"--Expendable Launch Vehicles. Surely you remember that fabled day
# in 1926 when Robert Goddard, father of modern rocketry, lit off the
# first liquid fueled rocket engine, sending a device the size and shape
# of a coat tree screaming into the low clouds over Auburn, Massachusetts?
# Remember how he called to his wife, "Come quick, dear, I've invented the
# expendable launch vehicle!"
# *Spyless Sky *
# The original reason the shuttle was supposed to lift 65,000 pounds was
# to satisfy not commerce or science, but the Defense Department. DOD
# plans to launch all its military spy satellites on the shuttle, using
# NASA tracking facilities and astronauts. "DOD was brought into the
# shuttle planning because they wanted something big with a lot of
# payload," Doug Lord explains. "Without DOD, there would have been no
# reason to make the shuttle so big."
# DOD's chief concern was being able to launch south over the poles, where
# sun synchronous orbits are available. In such orbits, a spy satellite's
# cameras see the same sun conditions every day. A shuttle launching
# 65,000 pounds due-east was supposed to have enough energy to lift 40,000
# pounds over the poles. But as time went on, DOD began to perceive that
# Columbia couldn't even come close. So DOD got funds to build a "thrust
# augmentation package"--yet another set of engines to be strapped to the
# shuttle conglomeration.
# The "thrust package" will be an abbreviated first stage of a Titan
# rocket-two motors and four fuel tanks. Fitting under the shuttle's fuel
# tank, it will generate enough thrust to lift an extra 10,000 to 20,000
# pounds. The cost is $10 million a shot, NASA says--there go those costs,
# picking up speed again--and it will not be reusable. Tumbles into the
# ocean like those despised old rockets.
# This doesn't dampen DOD's enthusiasm for the shuttle project. Air Force
# Secretary Hans Mark recently told Congress: "It is important to exploit
# the shuttle... because as far as we know, the Russians have nothing like
# it." (It is believed the Klingons have nothing like it, either.) DOD
# campaigned long and hard to get its own shuttle launchers, at Vandenberg
# Air Force Base in California. Since Cape Kennedy could already
# accommodate more shuttle flights than were planned, it was hard for DOD
# to justify $4 billion to build and operate another base. But the Joint
# Chiefs of Staff pointed out that, after a polar launch from Cape
# Kennedy, the empty fuel tank would tumble away and burn up in the skies
# over Russia. After a polar launch from Vandenberg, it would not. Russia
# might interpret a burning fuel tank as a nuclear attack, the Chiefs
# warned: The fact that Russian instruments would immediately identify the
# launch as that of an unarmed shuttle--or that we could notify them of
# the launch via Mailgram, at a fraction of the cost of a telegram or a
# Vandenberg base--was discounted. The Chiefs prevailed.
# Because of the delays, DOD has ordered six more Titan IIIs to ensure
# launch capacity for the next two years' worth of spy satellites. Beyond
# that, however, no more Titan production is planned, according to Jack
# Boyd of Martin-Marietta, the rocket's builder. "By the mid-1980s," says
# Defense Secretary Brown, "we will be almost totally dependent on the
# shuttle for our national security space missions." No alternative but to
# rely on an untested system. Wonder if the Russians have one of those?
# *Scotty, Beam Us Out *
# Technical problems are just that: technical. Much of what's wrong with
# the shuttle will someday be fixed. If money is no object, as it usually
# isn't in space launches, we can pay more for reusable shuttles than for
# throw-away rockets if we have to. But the question never answered
# is--what will the shuttle do that rockets couldn't do?
# It can't launch more than they can; sometimes, it can't launch as much.
# (Even the 65,000-pound target pales compared to the 250,000 pounds a
# Saturn V could hoist.) It can't bring back satellites. It can't keep a
# space station aloft even a fraction as long as Skylab stayed up there.
# It has no scientific value. It just has men in the front seats ... and
# an enormous amount of weight and equipment devoted to bringing them, and
# an empty cargo bay, back in one piece.
# There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle cannot. A
# rocket can be permitted to fail. What if a billion dollar spaceship
# wipes out on a "routine" mission "commuting" to space with some puny
# little satellite? Cooper fears it might drive a stake through the heart
# of the manned space program. Would the public stand to lose a quarter of
# the fleet in a single day? Would it fork over another billion dollars to
# build a replacement? Would it stand for spending millions to train
# astronauts to be truck drivers, only to lose truck and drivers both? The
# prospect makes the old rockets seem kind of nice. One of the old
# throw-away jobs could go haywire, and spiral down into the ocean off the
# Bahamas, and everybody would feel miserable and millions would be wasted
# and everybody would go back to work. Lost it, dammit--but then nobody
# ever expected it back.
# * You Only Go Around Once*
# The shuttle is the first space vehicle that can't be test-fired
# unmanned, Cooper points out. Pilots have to crawl in and light the
# candle and go. A couple of guys who ought to know better have to wrestle
# with that stick and call out the numbers and write when they get there.
# Then we'll know.
# It goes like this. During blast-off, unlike those capsules and modules
# with escape rockets to pull the pilots free in case of trouble, there is
# no way out of the shuttle. Columbia has ejection seats like a jet
# fighter, but they're useless during take-off. Punching out at several
# thousand m.p.h. doesn't work. If the slab of rushing air doesn't kill
# you, the engine exhaust flames will.
# Here's the plan. Suppose one of the solid-fueled boosters fails. The
# plan is, you die. Solid rockets can fail in two ways. They can explode;
# enough said. Or they can shut down spontaneously. If a booster shuts
# down, there will be 2.5 million pounds of thrust on one side battling
# zero pounds on the other. Even a split second of this imbalance will
# send the ship twisting into oblivion, overriding any application of
# pilot skill.
# Suppose one of the shuttle's three main engines fails. You have a
# fighting chance. You blow the boosters off. Then, using the throttles on
# the remaining engines, you try to turn the beast around. It's screaming
# and trembling, a vicious wounded animal. There's that damn fuel tank
# hanging there, and it has all the aerodynamic grace of the Temple of
# Karnak. But it's got the fuel. Ditch it and you've got no engines.
# If you get twisted back around toward the Cape, you blow the fuel tank
# off and glide home. If the beast is too badly wounded to land, but you
# can slow it down to a few hundred m.p.h. before you splat into the
# water, you're okay. At that speed you can eject.
# But you're in luck--the launch goes fine. Once you get into space, you
# check to see if any tiles are damaged. If enough are, you have a choice
# between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is hope they can get a rescue shuttle
# up in time. Plan B is burn up coming back.
# But let's not worry about the tiles. The tiles should be okay. They're
# certainly spending enough time on them. So once you get back into the
# atmosphere, the mad joyride begins. You have no power now, the engines
# are spent and switched out. You get one shot at a landing. Originally
# the plans called for a couple of regular jet engines to give you enough
# power to maneuver, or maybe go around for a second approach if the first
# one doesn't line upright. But jet engines got killed in the
# cost-cutting. A billion-dollar ship, and this is how they were cutting
# costs ....
# The shuttle starts rubbing air at Mach 25--25 times the speed of sound.
# At 250,000 feet, you have a little control with the reaction thrusters.
# By 80,000 feet, they've shut off, and you're gliding. It's silent in the
# ship. Just the air rushing by and the computers meeping to each other.
# Biting into the denser air, your elevators and speed brakes lend some
# control. You can still maneuver "cross range"--several hundred miles
# north or south relative to your approach from the west. But there are
# only 15 runways and lake beds in the world where you can land, so don't
# get carried away.
# Cross-range maneuvering is no longer possible by 50,000 feet. You're
# locked in, wherever you're going. Now you have company. Fighter
# planes--"chase planes"--have picked you up. They're swarming all around
# you, snooping around the hull for damage. Eighteen miles from the
# runway, you finally slow to subsonic speed. Now you really have some
# options. At this low speed and altitude, you could punch out safely.
# At 12,000 feet, the plummeting begins. Nose down at 24 degrees to the
# horizon, 30 degrees in some flights. Feels like a dive bomber. That
# DC-9, the one that makes your knuckles white on commercial flights,
# comes in at three degrees. Thirty seconds out, you can raise the nose
# back up. Now you have one and only one chance to lower the landing gear.
# No time to cycle them. If the gear don't lock, that's it. The chase
# planes are coming right down to the strip with you, following your every
# move like baby ducks. They snoop around the landing gear. Locked? If
# not, the chase pilots have a couple seconds to tell you to bail out.
# Only a few more seconds. The ground isn't coming up; some prankster from
# Hell is throwing it at you. Whack! Down at 220 m.p.h. Hope the rubber in
# those tires didn't blow from that long cold soak. Crack! You bounce
# along, you roll to a stop.
# Good thing you didn't have to punch out. Only Columbia will have
# ejection seats. "The whole philosophy is that the shuttle is like a
# commercial airliner," Day explains. "You test everything like mad, but
# once it's checked out, you take your chances."
# Now, let's check. Is the hull intact? Better be. NASA says it will turn
# this ship around and have it flying again in two weeks--only 96 of those
# hours for "safing" and refitting. Did all that stress--stress that would
# have twisted any other flying machine into a croissant--pop off any of
# your tiles? Let's hope not. The cost-cutting plan says NASA will have to
# replace only 1.4 percent of them after each flight. It's right here in
# the cost-cutting plan, right under "C"--"Commuting to space."
# Gregg Easterbrook, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a senior
# editor for The New Republic.
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