February 02, 2003
What NASA Ought To Do

NASA should cancel the Space Shuttle. It is old technology. It is very expensive to operate. It has many safety and reliability problems that are inherent in its design. It is not the future. Its main advantage is that it lets NASA put people up into space now. Its a short-term photo op generator. It lets current generation astronauts go into space. But the Shuttle does not accelerate the human migration into space. By sucking money away from development of newer enabling technologies the shuttle slows the human movement into space.. If the Shuttle had been cancelled after the first accident and if the money spent on it had been spent on new space technologies we'd be much farther along than we are now.

Along with a cancellation of the Shuttle NASA should mothball the space station. Send up a rocket to put the ISS into a higher mothball orbit where it won't decay and enter the Earth's atmosphere for years. Then go back to the basics of working on next generation space travel technology.

NASA has spent the last couple of decades using a launch technology that was a major compromise over initial shuttle design goals. The compromise was adopted because a more ambitious design was going to cost more than Congress would allocate. Instead of delaying or taking longer to develop a great shuttle NASA chose to develop a lousier shuttle. We've now spent two decades funding its higher operating costs and suffering the consequences of its less safe and less dependable design.

NASA should design and build a next generation shuttle. That next generation shuttle ought to be launchable from more than one existing rocket design. Uncouple the shuttle design from the rocket launch design. Also, it should be extremely safe. Instead of a cheaper tile design an inherently tougher cast metal alloy or newer material design should be pursued. The next generation shuttle should be an inherently safer design. It should be capable of saving the passengers even if the booster rocket launching it fails. It also should be capable of landing on and floating in the ocean if a rocket launcher fails.

NASA should work on a faster way to move between planets. Therefore NASA should develop nuclear themal propulsion. A trip to Mars with chemical rocket technology is a bad idea because it would take too long, be too risky, and cost too much. Its long term effect would be similar to that of the Apollo program. The Apollo moon program was a stunt which was pursued in a way that did not lay firm technological foundations that would lower the longer term costs of going back to the moon repeatedly. So once the stunt had been done people lost interest in it and the money needed to keep using its high cost method of getting to the moon dried up. To repeat that same pattern with a Mars shot would be a similar waste of resources. Development of enabling technologies should be placed ahead of performing stunts.

The focus of NASA should shift away from generating short-term results and toward advancing our underlying technologies for going into and operating in space. NASA should not send people into orbit just to have people in orbit. NASA should not try to go to another planet just to be the first to get there. The desire to do manned expeditions should take a backseat to the need to develop technologies that make manned expeditions easier to do.

Update: Jim Miller links to some articles about why the Space Shuttle ought to be cancelled. Says Jim:

The shuttle is too large for people, too small for cargo, underpowered for many tasks, far too expensive, and too dangerous for routine use. The flaws are not fixable with minor design changes, since the basic system design is wrong.

In the face of these obvious truths about what is unfixably wrong with the Shuttle the Shuttle program has been kept running for decades. It is time to stop being sentimental about the Space Shuttle just because it takes humans into space. It kills people. Its unreliable. Its extremely cost. Its doing precious little to advance space science and space technology. It takes money away from the development of approaches that could really advance our abilities to do things in space.

While Gregg Easterbrook gets some technical facts wrong he's right in arguing that the Shuttle has been kept alive by lobbying of aerospace companies and Congresscritters protecting jobs for their districts. We should not be fooled and let patriotic emotional appeals blind us to the economic and political interests that work to protect an economic and technological albatross.

Switching to unmanned rockets for payload launching and a small space plane for those rare times humans are really needed would cut costs, which is why aerospace contractors have lobbied against such reform. Boeing and Lockheed Martin split roughly half the shuttle business through an Orwellian-named consortium called the United Space Alliance. It's a source of significant profit for both companies; United Space Alliance employs 6,400 contractor personnel for shuttle launches alone. Many other aerospace contractors also benefit from the space-shuttle program.

Easterbrook is quite right when he argues that we should abandon the International Space Station and stop putting humans up into orbit while we develop better technologies for doing so. The ISS costs billions and produces precious little in the way of scientific advances. The $35 billion spent on it so far would have paid for a lot of nanotechnology research. Nanotech promises to reduce the costs of manufacturing space vehicles by orders of magnitude. We should stop pouring money down holes and instead work on making the advances that will make a future in space possible.

Update II: I've previously posted links to articles that claimed nuclear electric propulsion was suitable for space probes but that nuclear thermal propulsion would be better for human space travel. But Jay Manifold says nuclear electric is the way to go. Also see this previous post by Jay. Jay knows a lot more about this than I do and I take his word for it. In any case, some form of nuclear propulsion is what we need to develop for human travel between planets in the solar system. The development of nuclear propulsion technology is just one of the things that would become possible if the money now going for the Space Shuttle and ISS was rechanneled toward developing new technologies for space launch and space travel.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 02 08:39 PM  Space Exploration

razib said at February 3, 2003 1:47 AM:

the shuttle uses the same chips as the 1981 IMB PC-nuf said....*

*i can understand voyager having old tech, you couldn't get to them, but shuttles are ground-bound a lot

Jeremy said at February 4, 2003 1:42 PM:

Well, bear in mind, it's not like they play video games on the computers. The ones on the shuttle might be old, but they work at what they're supposed to do.

Anyway, the minute we stop sending people into space, it's going to be for good. Look what happened with the Moon.

We can't let that happen. Maybe some of you luddites are happy here on earth, but if people are willing to risk it, then it's really none of your business.

Randall Parker said at February 4, 2003 2:18 PM:

Jeremy, the way NASA spends its money is our business. I don't think there are any Luddites reading this blog either.

As for stopping the sending of people into space: NASA did just that in the late 70s and early 80s between Apollo and the Space Shuttle. Also, NASA stopped again for 32 months when Challenger blew up. We are entering another hiatus period right now as a result of Columbia's burning up.

Luddites are people who want technology to stop changing. People who advocate the use of a large amount of NASA's budget to fund 1970s space technology are effectively acting as Luddites even if they are not aware of it.

The Space Shuttle is old tech. I want very new tech. I want to push the cutting edge and not to cheer NASA on every time some astronauts get killed using flawed old tech.

Jay Manifold said at February 6, 2003 10:51 AM:

Great piece. My one nit-pick is that nuclear-electric, rather than nuclear-thermal, is the way to go; it's already several times more efficient and may soon be over an order of magnitude better. See "The Pre-Game Show" for details.

Mp said at April 20, 2003 4:21 PM:

NASA doesn't have the have to do with what you recommended. New space vehicles are currently being made. Though the three shuttles that are left will contiune flight until 2020. After upgrades... Let me say that every space shuttle that goes into space is more advanced then the last one.

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