October 14, 2004
Can We Finally Retire The Space Shuttle?

Burt Rutan makes clear his disdain for the terrible Space Shuttle design.

Over the decades, Rutan said, despite the promise of the Space Shuttle to lower costs of getting to space, a kid’s hope of personal access to space in their lifetime remained in limbo.

“Look at the progress in 25 years of trying to replace the mistake of the shuttle. It’s more expensive…not less…a horrible mistake,” Rutan said. “They knew it right away. And they’ve spent billions…arguably nearly $100 billion over all these years trying to sort out how to correct that mistake…trying to solve the problem of access to space. The problem is…it’s the government trying to do it.”

It is my hope that the success of SpaceShipOne and the coming flights of SpaceShipTwo and other private spacecraft designs will allow the American public to get over their emotional attachment to the Space Shuttle. People no longer need to invest their hopes for space exploration in the Shuttle. We can relegate the Shuttle to history as an obsolete and flawed design. We have wasted enough money on the Shuttle and more billions continue to be thrown at it to little result. The Shuttle was a bad idea in 1980. It is just an expensive money sink today. We should focus on the new designs and innovations that can be developed in the future.

There are signs of hope with NASA. Most importantly, NASA is going to offer Centennial Challenges prizes for innovations in aerospace and space exploration.

Welcome to Centennial Challenges, NASA's program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and ongoing NASA mission areas. By making awards based on actual achievements, instead of proposals, Centennial Challenges seeks novel solutions to NASA's mission challenges from non-traditional sources of innovation in academia, industry and the public.

NASA is accepting Centennial Challenges ideas from the public. So if you have any ideas for prizes for development of spacecraft and for advance of aerospace technology do write them up and send them in. So far NASA has not yet announced even a single challenge prize. Since NASA operates in a very political environment and wants to please its political masters it wouldn't hurt for you all to contact your elected representatives via their email address (enter your zip code at the top) and let those Congress critters know you want them to support NASA's move to offer cash prizes for aerospace achievements.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 October 14 03:54 PM  Airplanes and Spacecraft

Patri Friedman said at October 14, 2004 6:26 PM:

This is a great example of how free-market competition can make publically funded project more efficient.

Fund prizes, don't form beaurocracies.

Invisible Scientist said at October 15, 2004 12:40 PM:

The Space Shuttle, was designed during the Cold War era, when we were interested in
having the capability to put large satellites and weapons platforms in space, with the
ability to send astronauts to service these stations. Regular rockets were not suitable at
that time. Also, big corporations like Boeing (involved in building the Shuttle)
liked the idea that long term maintanance contracts would follow for many years.

The new cold war, if at all, may not require the Shuttle, but small satellites

Peter said at October 15, 2004 1:00 PM:

Part of the reason that the shuttle was so messed up had to do with meeting military requirements. The original shuttle was planned to cost $200,000,000 and carry about 20,000 pounds.

The original plan was to have several incremental designs.
A 20,000# lifter,
A 40,000# lifter,
A pure passenger lifter,
A 100,000 to 200,000# lifter.

To sell congress on the shuttle, NASA had to meet all of the needs of the military (national reconasance office) which was to be able to lift KH11 satellites, and if there was some sort of launch problem, coast back to the USA from where ever they had a failure. The coast-home requirement made the wing design into a delta, and the requirement that a KH11 be accomodated on the first model killed off the incremental design. Net result, shuttles cost about 11 times what they were originally planned to cost, and instead of a fleet of several hundred, we have, umm, wow, I don't have to use all my fingers to count them... ;)

The NRO never let a KH11 on a shuttle, they continued to use delta boosters.

If NASA didn't have to grovel and brown nose politicians, we would have had a decent shuttle fleet. Instead, politics turned it into the fiasco that we have today. Don't think that private companies are incapable of the same blind adherance to dogma that infests congress. Many private companies thrive inspite of their stupidity.

Invisible Scientist said at October 15, 2004 9:50 PM:

Thanks for the details on the Shuttle, but as far as NASA and the politicians are concerned,
how about Boeing which was building most of the Shuttle? Surely, Boeing also had some kind
of lobbying for this business... Not just NASA...

But then the Soviet version of the Shuttle was an EXACT copy of the American version,
and interestingly enough, the Russians abandoned that project immediately after flying their
own Shuttle, and they are only using regular rockets that are cheap.

steveH said at October 16, 2004 6:16 PM:

When the shuttle design was in progress, Boeing's was *not* the winning entry.

The shuttle was originally built by Rockwell (which old-timers knew as North American).

Now, decades later, after Rockwell was absorbed by Boeing...

F451 said at October 17, 2004 6:39 AM:

"...the Soviet version of the Shuttle was an EXACT copy of the American version..."

Even an invisible scientist should know that "has an orbiter that looks kinda like" is not the same as "an EXACT copy".

Invisible Scientist said at October 18, 2004 8:35 AM:

Of course, the Soviet version of the Space Shuttle cannot be an absolutely exact copy,
but it was clearly intended to be a politically motivated imitation of the American version...

In fact, it was reported in the media that the Soviet version of the Shuttle actually had
a remote controlled landing mechanism, making if possible to make the Shuttle to land without
astronauts, purely by controlling it from the ground. If true, this even means that they had
a remarkably advanced computing power in the Soviet version of the Shuttle. But still, it was
a very similar imitation in many ways... The Soviets even built a special version of the Antonov
transport plane, only for the purpose of carrying their Shuttle, the way the American version is
carried on a Boeing 747.

Invisible Scientist said at October 18, 2004 9:04 AM:

Thanks for the correction that Rockwell was absorbed over by Boeing, but curently,
Boeing has an interest in keeping this Shuttle program going, since it still services it,
and the latest one built to replace the one that blew up, was still built by Boeing.

Michael said at October 19, 2004 7:26 AM:


It was still Rockwell what build the last Shuttle vehicle.

Boing did not acquire Rockwell Space Division until after that vehicle was delivered.

Mike said at October 19, 2004 6:28 PM:

Here's some comments I originally sent to Glenn Reynolds on this topic (below) and this on the Russian Boran.

It has been speculated that the the Buran was indeed a pretty close copy of the Shuttle Orbiter. The Shuttle Orbiter has 27000 or so tiles and blankets for thermall protection during the high temperatures of re-entry. The light weight and fragile tiles that line the underside of the vehicle handle the really high temps but have to be small so that the aluminum skin can flex independently of the tiles and the tiles can conform to the contours of the spacecraft skin. The gaps between the tiles are filled with a special material (called gap-filler, of course) that prevents the hot plasma from reaching the skin between the tiles. These tiles cannot be aligned so that the gaps line up along the length of the underside. One tile must somewhat "block" the gap of the two adajcent tiles in the previous row. The tile pattern runs from side to side rather than front to back for this reason. It has been suggested that the thermal tiles on the belly of the Buran were not aligned as on the Shuttlebut were aligned longitudinally to a degree. As a result the skin of the Buran was literally cooked in one of the test flights and a redesign was too expensive to consider. I have never been ale to verify this account so take this with a grain of salt. I would welcome verifiable info to the contrary.

Here's what I sent to Glenn on Rutan - please believe me - not to denigrate a superb achievement but to advise caution on the advent of this brave new world.

Going to space is and will be expensive. Commercial access only came because the Government invested the billions. Gravity, not lift is the issue.

Rutan has not achieved orbital flight although he has met the X-prize requirement.

Orbital flight requires a velocity of about 17,500 mph. Rutan has achieved nowhere near that. A good friend of mine pointed out quite simply the real difficulty of access to space. Say you are flying to Miami and it is supposed to take 2 hours from your airport at 540 mph. If you hit a headwind and only fly 500 mph you still get to Miami but take longer than 2 hours.

If you are trying to go to orbit and can only reach 16500 mph, its not a matter of talking longer to get to orbit, its a matter of not getting to orbit at all.

The Shuttle flies to 220 nautical miles with in excess of 35,000 lbs of payload and 7 crew members and can stay up for 14 days. Rutan got to 62 miles on a pop up flight profile with one crew and no payload. Hugh difference.

And here's a key point. The Shuttle goes through re-entry, a process involving 1000's of degrees temperature and a heat load that could prove disastrous if any one of 27000 thermal tiles and blankets fails. Rutan's craft saw nothing anything like this - and still nearly failed.

Furthermore, NASA spent those billions, as the news media likes to point out, solving incredible problems in physics and technology. Rtuan went 62 miles, Apollo went 500,000 on each round trip to the moon with some pretty fancy maneuvering and rendezvousing along the way. (Added for this post: The Shuttle likewise travels 1000's of miles in orbit on every successful mission.)

Lockheed and Boeing may have to do something all right, but man-rating their expendable launch vehicles will cost more, not less. While trains, planes and automobiles continue to run, fly and drive through crashes and losses of lots of people, wait til a commercial space craft tanks with humans on board and see what happens to all the eager customers.

Yes, the Wright brothers only flew a few 100 feet the first time and now look at the skies. But, its gravity, not lift. And chemical fuel and mass fraction and cryogenics and vibration and re-entry thermal laoding and escape velocity and Kepler and Newton and a horribly, horribly hostile environment.

But otherwise, its doable. AND I hope you are right after all. This may be one of those times when the bicycle makers open the door for everyman!!!

Mike said at October 19, 2004 7:48 PM:

Sorry for the typos in previous post.

Regards to all who posted on this topic. Its been good stuff to read. Looking forward to any comments or corrections to my bit. Sure hope that private enterprise can make this happen.

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