Project: Space Station, Part 1: The Reality

24 Jul

Space Shuttle

It was hard for a space-obsessed kid growing up in the 1980s not to feel just a little bit envious of the previous generation. The late 1960s had marked the climax of one of the most glorious adventures in human history, and the first one that, thanks to the miracle of mass media, everyone could share in in real time. Even the most non-technical and non-scientific among us could understand the clear progression that climaxed in that “giant leap for mankind”: Apollo 7 tested the Apollo capsule in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 voyaged to the Moon and circled it; Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in Earth orbit; Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal; Apollo 11 was the big one, July 20, 1969, the day that changed everything forever for humanity. Or so it must have seemed at the time. By the early 1980s it could feel hard to believe the Moon landing had actually happened. In place of Apollo we got the space shuttle, NASA’s glorified space truck. In place of the clear milestones of Apollo we got a space program whose strategy seemed akin to the missions of the shuttles themselves: go up, circle around for a while doing some things people weren’t really too clear about, then come back down. Oh, we dutifully put together our shuttle model kits and dreamed of seeing an actual launch, but something was missing.

The program to make a reusable space plane was first conceived even before that first Moon landing, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was in cinemas showing a vision of the near future in which a flight into Earth orbit was as routine as a flight for the opposite coast. To achieve such a vision, clearly something would have to change. An Apollo Moon rocket weighed slightly over 450,000 pounds without fuel, of which 12,250 pounds — less than 3 percent of the total — would make its way back to Earth at the end of a mission in the form of the non-reusable command module. The rest was cast away at various stages of the mission, making Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon, if one of — perhaps the — most inspiring voyages in human history, also one uniquely wasteful and completely unsustainable as a model for a future of routine space flight. After all, while NASA had been enjoying effectively blank checks from Congress through the Space Race, it didn’t take a Nostradamus to realize that that was likely to change in a hurry as soon as the Moon was achieved and American pride satisfied.

The budget cuts, when they came, were even more draconian than anticipated, costing NASA three of their planned ten Moon landings — another, Apollo 13, never made it there for other reasons — and forcing them to similarly scale back Skylab, the United States’s first (and to date, outside of the International Space Station, only) space station. The space shuttle survived only by making a series of painful compromises and an unholy alliance with the Air Force that would see it used for classified military missions — basically, to launch a new generation of bigger and heavier spy satellites — about 30 percent of the time. It was a partnership that neither NASA nor the Air Force really wanted. Robert Seamans, a former NASA administrator who had become Secretary of the Air Force by the time the deal was made, thought it was “asinine” to try to coordinate with a civilian agency and put astronauts’ lives at risk instead of just building a cheaper, simpler unmanned rocket for the purpose. But his and other practical voices were overwhelmed by those of the bureaucrats and the politicians.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

An early space-shuttle concept which used short, straight wings and a different reentry profile to reduce heat buildup.

The Air Force partnership had tragic consequences for the shuttle. In order to carry the big spy satellites the Air Force anticipated launching, the shuttle’s cargo bay had to be bigger and wider than it might otherwise have been, giving the shuttle its distinctively chunky, less than aerodynamically ideal shape. While occasionally useful, much of that space went empty much of the time. In case the Cold War should ever turn hot, the Air Force also demanded that it be possible to launch the shuttle from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deploy a satellite, and land again back in California within one orbit without ever flying over Soviet territory, thus minimizing its exposure to space-borne or terrestrial weaponry. In aeronautics jargon, this necessitated that the shuttle have a considerable “downrange” or “crossrange” capability to glide off its normal orbital path, which in turn necessitated the shuttle’s delta-shaped wings that made it less than a pilot’s delight. John Young, the first man to pilot a shuttle to Earth from space, compared it to trying to fly a brick. Other pilots would call landing the shuttle a “controlled plummet,” while passengers compared it to a “dive-bomber run.” Worse, the final design generated far more heat on reentry than would have NASA’s earlier concepts, heat which engineers could combat only through the use of heavy, cludgy thermal-protection tiles that were a constant worry and labor sink throughout the program’s history. Each of the 35,000 tiles on the shuttle was a one-off piece that had to be custom manufactured, and every single one of them had to be carefully inspected by hand after every single launch in the hopes of averting disaster on the next mission. In spite of NASA’s best efforts, the disaster that was perhaps inevitable finally came on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia burned up on reentry. A more elegant shuttle could have minimized or even eliminated the tiles altogether, and saved the lives of seven astronauts.

Well before the Columbia and even the Challenger disasters, a feeling dogged engineers and astronauts alike that the shuttle just wasn’t as safe as it should be in still other ways. This was largely down to yet more concessions and compromises to budgetary realities. In place of a reusable booster section which would have blasted the shuttle into space and then glided — possibly with the aid of a human pilot — back down to a soft runway landing, the shuttle got a massive external fuel tank that would just be cast away, Apollo-style, and a pair of solid-fuel booster rockets that floated back via parachute to drop into the ocean. Essentially little more than hollow metal cylinders filled with propellant, the boosters could be reused, but were problematic in other ways. The shuttle was the first manned space vehicle ever to use solid rockets as a primary means of propulsion; they had heretofore been considered too dangerous because they can neither be throttled nor shut down entirely if something should go wrong during a burn. And, unlike earlier spacecraft, the shuttle was equipped with no emergency escape mechanism whatsoever for launches. Just as the heat tiles’ failings cost the last crew of the Columbia their lives, this lack may have cost the last crew of the Challenger, who appear to have been alive and conscious for at least some portion of their fatal fall back to Earth.

I don’t mean to say that the space shuttle wasn’t a crazily magnificent feat, nor to cast aspersions on the engineers who made it (usually) work in the face of all the cutbacks and compromises, nor to say that I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to fly in it, safety questions and all. The shuttle certainly made for a cool sort of spacecraft, and an almost unbelievably comfortable one. If hardly the lap of luxury by earthbound standards, it was ridiculously roomy by comparison with the American spacecraft that preceded it and those (if any) that appear likely to follow it. Certainly the earliest astronauts in their “Spam in a can” capsules, who had to fight just to get a window, would have loved this craft that an astronaut got to actually fly.

Yet it’s hard for even the most generous observer to avoid noting just how massively the space-shuttle program overpromised and underdelivered. Originally projected as capable of launching again just one week after returning to Earth, the timetable was revised by the time of the Columbia‘s maiden flight in 1981 to one month. No shuttle ever came close to meeting even this timeframe. What with all of the repairs and inspections that were needed — not least to those pesky tiles — a shuttle that launched three times in a year was doing very well for itself. Nor did the huge savings supposedly enabled by this reusable spacecraft ever really materialize. The cost of each launch averaged over the life of the program ends up in the $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion range, at least ten times what it costs the Russians to put a three-man crew into space via their trusty old Soyuz space capsule and a conventional expendable rocket — and, while fourteen people died aboard the Challenger and Columbia, the Russians haven’t lost a cosmonaut since 1971. The shuttle lacked the romance of the Apollo program, but that was rather implicit in its purpose all along. More damningly, it failed in its goal of making spaceflight a safe matter of (relatively) inexpensive routine.

For much of the shuttle’s lifetime, NASA had trouble answering a fairly fundamental question: just what was it really good for? In the optimistic early days of the program they floated the idea that the shuttle might be a viable commercial proposition, an actual moneymaker for the agency. Other countries as well as private companies would pay NASA to truck their satellites into space. But this never materialized in any significant way; the shuttle was far, far too expensive to launch, not to mention too prone to unexpected delays and other problems, to compete with cheap, reliable unmanned rockets for commercial satellite launches. Twice West Germany paid NASA to launch the shuttle and give them free use of a Spacelab laboratory module installed in the cargo bay, but that was about as good as it would ever get for the shuttle as a commercial entity.

The shuttle also failed to live up to expectations as a tool for the military. Work on the planned alternative launch site for military missions at Vandenberg fell far behind schedule, and was finally abandoned in the wake of the Challenger disaster after over $4 billion had been spent. Of 27 military personnel recruited and trained to serve as astronauts on the shuttle, only 2 ever made it into space due to disorganization, turf wars, and poor inter-agency communication. Instead the military had to content itself with essentially sub-contracting its payloads out to NASA; the missions launched from the Kennedy Space Center and featured the usual rotating crew of civilian astronauts. These so-called “Department of Defense” missions, which numbered nine between 1985 and 1992, always felt a bit farcical. Their satellite payloads, despite usually being officially considered “classified,” were an open secret at best around the Kennedy Space Center; during the run-up to the second of these launches, to put a Defense Satellite Communications System into orbit in October of 1985, even reporters were walking around in “DSCS” tee-shirts. Never happy about being bound to the shuttle in the first place, the military started working in earnest to find an alternative following the Challenger disaster and the subsequent thirty-month hiatus in launches. That alternative turned out to be, inevitably, a cheaper and simpler unmanned rocket in the form of the Titan IV, latest in a venerable line of military and civilian workhorse launchers.

Lots of good science was done aboard the shuttle betwixt and between all these dashed expectations. Yet it was hard for even a space-loving kid, much less the general public, to get all that excited about experiments in applied plasma physics or materials science. After the novelty of the first few flights which proved the crazy contraption actually worked, it was just hard to get excited about the space shuttle in general. Only one tantalizing prospect seemed like it had a chance of changing all that: a permanent station in space, to be built, supplied, and maintained by the shuttle.

Artist's conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

Artist’s conception of the shuttle servicing an American space station.

This idea of a space station had been bound up with that of the shuttle itself right from the beginning. After all, that inspiring 2001 future had featured both, hadn’t it? Without a space station, where was the space shuttle to actually go? (“Nowhere,” some would soon be saying.) In this, NASA’s original vision for the post-Apollo future, the space shuttle was to be just that, the shuttle bus ferrying people, materials, and equipment up to where the real action was happening. The shuttle wasn’t supposed to be exciting in itself. The real excitement would be happening up there, as a permanent settlement in space grew and developed and just maybe started thinking about building its own spacecraft right there in orbit to visit the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, perhaps Halley’s Comet (which was conveniently due for a visit in 1986). NASA anticipated building both parts of the program — the station and the ancillary shuttle to service it — in tandem. It was only when the budget cuts started to bite that they had to make the hard decision to go ahead with the space shuttle alone as a necessary precursor to the station. If the shuttle without the space station felt like a spacecraft without a purpose, that’s because it largely was.

And so NASA continually tried to find a way to get the space-station project out of stasis. During the mid-1970s some planners floated the intriguing idea that it might be possible to reuse the recently abandoned Skylab as the core of a more permanent station. Plans were mooted to send an early shuttle mission to Skylab with a rocket pack that could be used to push it out of its decaying orbit. Later missions would then have refurbished, repaired, and reactivated the station for habitation. Such plans were doomed, however, by delays in the shuttle program and by heavy sunspot activity that caused Skylab’s orbit to decay more quickly than anticipated. On July 11, 1979, Skylab crashed to Earth, raining debris down on Western Australia and causing NASA considerable embarrassment almost two more years before the eventual maiden flight of the Columbia.

The space-station project remained alive after that as a theoretically real thing, but generated little more than sketches and plans for which NASA could never seem to amass more than a fraction of the necessary funding. In his January 1984 State of the Union Address, President Reagan gave the project a badly needed shot in the arm via a would-be Kennedy-esque pronouncement.

Our next frontier [is] space. Nowhere do we so effectively demonstrate our technological leadership and ability to make life better on Earth. The Space Age is barely a quarter of a century old. But already we’ve pushed civilization forward with our advances in science and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown.

Our progress in space — taking giant steps for all mankind — is a tribute to American teamwork and excellence. Our finest minds in government, industry, and academia have all pulled together. And we can be proud to say: We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free.

America has always been greatest when we dared to be great. We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.

A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, in communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space. We want our friends to help us meet these challenges and share in their benefits. NASA will invite other countries to participate so we can strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.

Couched in empty political tautologies as it is (“America has always been greatest when we dared to be great?”), that declaration did lead to some action: an official Space Station Program Office was established at the Johnson Space Center, strategic plans and blueprints were created with more enthusiasm. Any momentum was abruptly dissipated, however, by the Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986, an event which stopped American manned spaceflight in its tracks for two and half years of investigating and soul-searching. The shuttle program would never quite be the same again, while hopes for the space station were all but dashed. Reagan’s successor George Bush gave NASA another apparent boost in a major speech on July 20, 1989, refloating the old idea of the station, now to be named Freedom, as a base for launching future missions to the Moon and Mars. But that speech was just another in an emerging tradition of Presidents making grand pronouncements about space exploration that come to nothing. Just as had happened with the space shuttle, project Freedom was steadily scaled back and compromised in the face of dwindling budgets. In 1993, NASA’s independent Freedom was finally folded into the International Space Station, itself only a shadow of what NASA had originally planned for the station to be.

Even at that, though, the ISS finally provided the space shuttle with a purpose for which it seemed eminently suited. Beginning with the first ISS building block which the Endeavor carried into orbit in 1998, the aging shuttle fleet got from the station a new lease on life and a new sense of purpose; this was what the shuttle had been designed to do all those years ago. But then came the Columbia disaster of 2003, and all the old doubts resurfaced. It was almost with a sense of relief that NASA retired the shuttle at last in 2011, before any more lives were lost, even if doing so left them with no way to get people into space at all for what looks to be, at best, some years to come. It was hard to escape the feeling as the shuttle fleet was parceled out to museums that something had gone horribly wrong in the aftermath of Apollo, that a brilliant beginning had been squandered.

(A very good short summary of the shuttle program and its discontents is found in The Final Countdown by Pat Duggins. For more on the shuttle as a military vehicle, see this article at Smithsonian Air and Space. For more on the drawbacks of the shuttle’s design and the alternative once proposed by Max Faget, see this article at The Space Review.)


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25 Responses to Project: Space Station, Part 1: The Reality

  1. Anonymous

    July 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Yeah, the Shuttle was really not such a great idea, and the actual implementation (due largely to the politics involved to get the money for it) just made things worse. Things are looking up though, with the work SpaceX has been doing with capsules to carry people, and reusable rocket stages.

    It’s not online, but if you’re interested in perhaps the single best book on the Shuttle program, you’ll want to read “Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System” by Dennis Jenkins. Of course, everyone’s still awaiting the 4th and final edition of the book. (The 3d ed. gets through 2001, so it’s missing the fate of Columbia, among other things)

    Also, you misspelled Halley’s Comet; it has two ‘l’s.

    Anyway, great read, and I loved Project Space Station in my Apple II days, so I’m looking forward to seeing the next part. Have you tried out Kerbal Space Program at all?

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 25, 2014 at 6:29 am

      Thanks for the correction, and thanks for pointing me to both book and game; I wasn’t aware of either. Too bad both look like huge timesinks I can ill afford. :)

  2. Ken Rutsky

    July 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Great writeup! Looking forward to part 2…

  3. ZUrlocker

    July 24, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Somehow I didn’t get the IF connection here.

    • Ken Rutsky

      July 24, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      Groundwork for this HESWare game, I imagine:

    • Jason Dyer

      July 24, 2014 at 6:11 pm

      Hey, I had this! I remember crashing a lot.

      • dr. no

        July 25, 2014 at 12:49 am

        Tell me about it. I bought a space shuttle designed by Jack Tramiel. It turned out to be a bean burrito and a box of matches. :(

  4. Felix

    July 24, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    An excellent story as usual, replete with details I didn’t even know. It’s enough to make me even more furious. That, my friend, is what happens when people don’t listen to engineers. And they never do. I would add that the American space program at least has never been a money sink — on the contrary, it made lots of money, directly and indirectly. Even if it hadn’t, the cost of any war in the 20th century dwarfs that of sending all those people and satellites into space.

    And now? Now America’s hope for going back into space is a private company that designed its own rocket and space capsule… based on designs abandoned by NASA for not being sexy enough. In fact I hear the next Dragon space capsule will actually match the capacity of the Space Shuttle while being cheaper, safer and truly reusable for a change.

    For that matter, a bunch of Romanians managed to achieve suborbital flight (unmanned) just on sponsorships obtained through an NGO. What more proof do we need that it’s mostly just a matter of will?

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 25, 2014 at 6:57 am

      I’m just a bit skeptical about both the notion that a space program can be justified entirely on economic grounds and that private industry can step in and replace NASA.

      In the case of the former: there’s a lot of funny accounting going on with some of those studies. As always, it’s wise to look at where the study is getting its funding and take that into account. In the case of the shuttle in particular, I’m not sure the U.S. ever got direct, immediate economic benefits out of it to the tune of $1.3 to $1.5 billion *per launch*. This doesn’t mean a space program isn’t worth funding. On the contrary, I wish that NASA’s budget had somehow, through some historical accident, become sacrosanct the way the Pentagon’s absurd budget has. If NASA had continued to receive its 1960s funding, we could very well be living in the future shown in 2001 today — and *that* would, in the long-term, have made not only a huge economic difference but also led to a better world in all sorts of other ways in my opinion.

      In the case of the latter: I understand the need for private industry to begin to develop space, but the really grand, imagination-stretching projects cost so much and, again, bring such questionable (at best) immediate economic returns that the only organizations on the planet really able to fund them are governments. Democracies, particularly disfunctional ones like the current one in the U.S., are ironically maybe not the best equipped to carry out long-term space development. It’s hard to plan decades in advance when your funding is always dependent on the next election cycle. It wouldn’t surprise me if China — an increasingly prosperous nation with an authoritarian government very accustomed to planning things decades into the future and a strong desire for the national validation and prestige that would come with a pioneering space program — took the lead in this century, and made it first to Mars amongst who knows what else.

  5. Lex Spoon

    July 24, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    It’s so true–80s kids got the short end of the stick with the space shuttle, compared to Apollo. Anyone remember all the Tang commercials?

    With all due respect, I believe the reusability argument is slightly misleading in this article. It was not engineers arguing for reusability, but the public. It was a major part of the shuttle’s mission to make a *reusable* space craft. Engineers, as you have pointed out, often judged that it was better to use something cheap, mass-produced, identical, and disposable.

    The thermal tiles are a good example of that. If you ask an engineer, they would likely say that it’s better to use an ablative heat shield and to reapply it before each launch. The public wanted reusable, though, so NASA spent a fortune developing the wonky ceramic-tiles approach.

    As a more down to earth example, it is both cheaper and better to use a disposable klenex than a reusable one.

    • Andrew Plotkin

      July 24, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      There was a lot of public enthusiasm for a reusable spacecraft but I doubt it influenced the engineering down at the “design the tiles” level! There were enough political constraints on the thing without assuming that kind of fluff.

      The engineering argument for reusability is obvious, and continues to be pursued today (by SpaceX and Virgin, e.g.). The Shuttle program didn’t have a stupid goal. Although I don’t know if there was ever a realistic possibility of “Shuttle without the military screwing it up”, so maybe it wasn’t a *practical* goal.

      • Jimmy Maher

        July 25, 2014 at 7:08 am

        Yeah, I haven’t seen any evidence that engineers were opposed to the *concept* of a reusable space shuttle, just to this specific implementation. For example, many were very bothered by the kludgy, wasteful external fuel tank.

        Virtually all of the blue-sky proposals for spaceflight of the future during the Apollo era called for vehicles that were *more* reusable than the shuttle we eventually got, not less. One popular proposal, which I mentioned in the article, was for a two-part design consisting of the actual spacecraft and a booster stage — also winged — that would launch the shuttle toward orbit and then glide back down to a runway landing to be refueled and used again.

        Of course, in hindsight, if they had known that NASA’s budgets would be cut as sharply as they would and that building the shuttle would effectively prevent them from ever doing much of anything else in manned spaceflight, they may very well have chosen to stay with cheap and simple disposable rockets and space capsules to save money for other things…

  6. Carl

    July 24, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    An interesting take on the Challenger disaster is that it may at some level be due to the requirement that the boosters be reuseable. Everyone knows the o-ring leaking caused the explosion but the only reason they needed o-rings was that they were too big to be returned for refurbishing. If they had been disposable they could have been sealed and while this wouldn’t have made the Space Shuttle safe by any stretch it would have at least eliminate that failure mode.

    • Anonymous

      July 25, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      Well, it’s not so much that the SRBs were to be recovered and reused, as much as other logistical problems. SRBs are ‘pre-fueled’ at the factory, long in advance of when they’re actually used. And since the propellant is highly volatile solid rocket fuel, they’re inherently dangerous objects. The casting (they’re poured like concrete) has to be perfect, because the burn rate is governed in large part by the surface area available. The SRBs had a void running down the length of them in an 11 point star shape, tuned to be just the right size and shape to fit the requirements. Less surface area means it burns slower and performs worse. More means it goes faster. But if a crack develops in the fuel, when the flame reached it, the whole thing might explode! (Though not like Challenger — the Morton Thiokol engineers immediately recognized that the SRBs did not explode then, as evidenced by the two smoke trails as the boosters flew away) A segmented booster made pouring, inspection, and if necessary, disposal of defective segments, easier.

      Also, since the SRBs are pre-fueled at the factory, they weigh a staggering amount. Most of the weight of a rocket is always going to be rocket fuel, with the structure being as lightweight as possible. With liquid fuel, a rocket can be fueled on the pad, and is thus lightweight enough that until size is an issue, parts can be transported easily by air. For example, an ordinary passenger 747 is carrying nearly twice as much weight as the NASA 747s that had Space Shuttle Orbiters on their backs. But the SRBs weighed almost 600 metric tons each! And the factory was in landlocked Utah. (As opposed to the barge-accessible factories for most rocket stages too large for air transport) This meant that rail was the only way to get the SRB to the launch sites, and if they had been a single piece, they would’ve been too long for the curves in the tracks.

      Disposable SRBs would still have been segmented, unless the contractor was obligated to move the factory to somewhere on the coast. It would’ve been better to just have liquid fueled boosters instead. Or better yet, to not have a one size fits all approach.

  7. arb

    July 25, 2014 at 5:23 am

    This post reminded me of a piece I read several years ago on the Shuttle: A Rocket To Nowhere. As a kid I loved the whole idea (and the look) of the shuttle, but it could never have lived up to the expectations placed on it.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 25, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      Love the description of the SRBs as “the equivalent of two giant firecrackers.” :)

  8. Keith Palmer

    July 25, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    The space shuttle program being forever stuck behind the Sisyphean 8-ball of its early publicity mostly seems to evoke a strange, “getting upset won’t do any good” sympathy in me. I work in an industry that has our own early publicity quoted back to us with contempt on a regular basis and our own share of “if only we’d been smarter…” disasters to try and learn from, but that may not be all of it. I don’t think I was too “envious of the previous generation” in the first half of the 1980s; that “whatever you can do doesn’t impress me” attitude seems a matter of later decades. Anyway, I found the sudden burst of resolve in 2010 to go to Florida and see one of the final space shuttle launches in person, and had the luck that it launched on the day it was scheduled to. Even there, though, there might have been that “what if this time” feeling…

  9. DZ-Jay

    March 3, 2017 at 11:58 am

    Having seen a Saturn V rocket first hand at the Kennedy Space Station, it boggles my mind how the Apollo program ever got off the ground! It is massive to the point of absurdity.

    It’s also a testament to the spirit of the time, pushing through all boundaries in order to “win” the so-called Space Race. Imagine the design conversations:

    Manager: What do you mean it doesn’t have enough fuel to get to the moon?
    Engineer: It’s hollowed out, and filled to the gills with fuel. That’s it. Can’t fit any more.
    Manager: Then make it bigger and fit more fuel!
    Engineer: But making it bigger will make it heavier, needing more fuel to reach the moon…
    Manager: Then add more fuel!
    Engineer: … which will require us to make it bigger, which in turn will make it heavier…
    Manager: Look, just keep on adding steel and fuel to it until it gets to the moon.

    Engineer: (unveiling the Saturn V) Ta-daaaa!

    The word: OMG!!! YUUUUGE!!!!!

  10. Jason Kankiewicz

    April 27, 2017 at 3:49 am

    “over the the life” -> “over the life”?
    “equipments” -> “equipment”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 28, 2017 at 6:52 am


  11. Tom

    November 5, 2017 at 12:00 am

    astronauts lives -> astronauts’ lives ?

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 6, 2017 at 1:38 pm


  12. Wolfeye M.

    September 10, 2019 at 4:08 am

    I have a book from the 1970s called Colonies in Space. It’s non-fiction… but might as well be sci-fi. It’s full of hopeful ideas and plans for humanity’s eventual colonization of the cosmos in space stations. But, it was written before all the budget cuts and shuttle disasters, when it seemed like humans spreading out among the stars, or at least, living in Earth orbit, was inevitable. These days, it’s just kind of sad to read.

    I was fortunate to have lived in the “space coast” before the end of the shuttle program. I still miss the boom of it going into space… and I was always greatful the ones I saw didn’t end in another kind of boom.

  13. Ian Crossfield

    April 8, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    Here’s an interesting anecdote with a connection to both the space shuttle program and to 1980s computing. Among the scientific experiments carried on STS-3, the third shuttle flight into space, was the Solar Flare X-Ray Polarimeter. This device formed the basis of the PhD dissertation (and only first-author scientific paper) of Leonard Tramiel, son of Commodore’s Jack Tramiel. Even more surprising (to me) was my recent discovery that Leonard’s doctoral advisor was Dr. Gary Chanan, who I later had the pleasure of working closely with — albeit twenty years later and two thousand miles away. It’s truly a small world!

  14. Jeff Nyman

    October 6, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    “By the early 1980s it could feel hard to believe the Moon landing had actually happened.”

    Conspiracy theorists aside, no, it really wasn’t. :)

    “Apollo 11’s trip to the Moon, if one of — perhaps the — most inspiring voyages in human history, also one uniquely wasteful and completely unsustainable as a model for a future of routine space flight.”

    Exactly. It was an amazing moment but it was also one that was not sustainable. Which makes any observations about how useless the space shuttle program was somewhat silly by comparison. There were a lot of disagreements about the nature of the space shuttle itself — i.e., the actual design — but not about the idea and concept, which was something much more realistic.

    Sometimes the much more realistic is not as glamorous as that one-shot big deal event, of course. But that doesn’t negate the slower progress that is sometimes needed. This can be said while still objectively agreeing that there were problematic aspects to the space program as it developed. Which, of course, is always easier to complain about in hindsight.

    While I get the substance of this article and agree with many of the objective points, like all such critiques I think there’s something missing.

    That something is a recognition that the shuttle program promoted exploration in space, for a variety of purposes. It was the start of taming a new frontier. We sent bunches of people and lots experiments outside our own planet’s atmosphere and were able to learn a lot; not just about humans and their physiology but also about materials science.

    The program supported a orbiting lab that has been under constant habitation by an international community for many, many years.

    The shuttle’s large crew compartment, while yes being initially needed for larger satellites, ended up allowing NASA to train and fly not just professional test pilots and future astronauts but also scientists and civilians. That large hold also allowed delivery of things like the Hubble telescope into orbit.

    It opened the door for the United States, Europe, and other partners for the study of long-term effects of spaceflight on the human body. By delivering the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit which has broadened our understanding of the universe. The various experiments that have been done in materials science have led to massive improvements of material crafting for regular day-to-day things. Many people, I would wager, don’t realize how much has come out of space-based research. All of which required humans conducting experiments in space, which the shuttle program enabled.

    For sure there were many mistakes as there are in any human endeavor that is pushing boundaries. There were also tragedies (whether those be fiscal or in the much more important loss of human lives). Yet none of that negates what the shuttle and the shuttle program — even with flaws — have given us.


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