January 19, 2010
Buy A Used Space Shuttle $28.2 Million Each
These babies are priced to move and won't last long.
The space agency announced late last week it has dropped the sale price of a used space shuttle from $42 million to the bargain-basement price of $28.8 million. With NASA moving to retire the space shuttle fleet this fall, the agency is looking to move a few shuttles and bring in some much-needed cash.
When I look at the NASA space shuttles I see really bad design choices made in the 1970s and kept alive for a few decades at taxpayer expense. They were never leading edge technology. Putting humans together with cargo was a fundamental mistake. The design put humans at higher risk (with fatal results) while requiring higher than necessary safety standards for cargo that made the cargo expensive to put into space.
A bad safety culture at NASA made the risks even greater. Politicos kept the shuttle alive because lots of rubes thought they were seeing really great technology launching people into space. The space shuttle was more about keeping alive a mythology than advancing the state of the possible for a human move into space.
Our greatest hope for lower costs of transportation into low Earth orbit comes from the idea of using a giant beanstalk elevator to move things into space.
Yes, the old space shuttle was mostly about mythology, and the Soviets even copied the American design just to have one, probably for the same reason, although they were wise enough not to pursue their shuttle program beyond one prototype.
But in the past, when robotics was less advanced, for some critical applications, maybe the defense people wanted to have a shuttle to avoid separating the crew from the cargo, since robots were less capable of assembling components in space for military applications.
But the latest versions of the classical rockets inherited from the Apollo days, currently have very advanced escape mechanisms to save the crew if there is any malfunction: The capsule at the front of the rocket gets separated and pulled both forward and sideways by independent rockets to steer that piece away from the main rocket not only during flight, but even during the initial ignition phase when the main rocket hasn't yet started to accelerate.
Here is the Soviet space shuttle:
It would be interesting to back into the Usenet archives to see who was saying what back in the 80s about NASA.
For some strange reason, Google -- the world's foremost search engine company -- can't make their Usenet archive search work.
>They were never leading edge technology.
This isn't quite true: The Isp of the Space Shuttle Main Engines is 453 (int a vacuum) - which is just about as good as any chemical engine ever made - that's still cutting edge after all these years. There were a number of other systems that were certainly leading edge for their day (the inertial nav system comes to mind).
The problem with the Space Shuttle (and I worked as a contractor at NASA back in the early 1980's), was that the design point was driven by the military, not NASA. The military demanded that the Shuttle be able to deploy the biggest satellite they had on the drawing board, which was around 65,000 pounds. If NASA had not been held to this design point, they would probably have gone for a cargo capacity closer to 25,000-30,000 pounds, which would have allowed for a completely different design and price point (especially when you consider that you have to be able to LAND with 65,000 pounds, in case of an abort).
So, NASA wasn't quite as clueless as you might imagine.
Also, the main design work on the Shuttle was unfortunately done in the late 1960's. This means almost no computer help in design. We forget these days how much easier it is to design things with computers: the Shuttle was actually drawn on paper. The Shuttle itself was also hampered by the relatively weak computing systems it had onboard. Heck, they didn't even have ethernet back then.
Lastly, I think the Shuttle still takes the cake as the most complex craft ever to fly. It has more moving parts than just about anything that gets off the ground. All of its important systems are triply redundant. You could argue that this is a bad thing, but given the constraints of the late 1960s, there was no choice.
So what you are saying is parts of the shuttle were leading edge technology for the 1960's built in the 1970's and launched in the 1980's. Does that about sum it up?
"It would be interesting to back into the Usenet archives to see who was saying what back in the 80s about NASA."
I remember mostly the arguments about whether the shuttle and its support would drain too much money away from other programs.
In retrospect I think it probably did.
But worse, IMO the flights seemed repetitious and led to a loss of public interest. I didn't sense a great payoff from repeated space walks and billions of photos of crews. Or from the zero gravity experiments. So either the payoff wasn't there or I didn't grasp it.
For boosting weight into space and bringing crews up to repair things (Hubble) already there it seemed fine. That was the right mission and we did need that capability.
The only flight of Buran impressed me at the time because there was no pilot yet the flight control systems landed it beautifully. Wiki says it had to land in a substantial crosswind.
Uh, no, I think I said, "that's still cutting edge after all these years", 'cause, you know, it is (SpaceX's engines, designed in the 2000's, don't get that Isp today). The inertial navigation system was pretty much state of the art until GPS came along after the shuttle was already in service.
you may be right but the KT70s were replaced by HAINS in the mid 90 but kept only the KT70 capabilities, not cutting edge for the times at all...
I also remember the KT70s were noisy. The SF algorithm had to be modded after STS-6 because constantly changing the reference IMU kept the crew awake all night with jet firings. As for the SSME high ISP, how many launches did each one make before a tear-down? The spec was 10 the reality was 1. We were using a top-fueler engine for a trip to the 7-11....
FWIW, I've was in the shuttle world for over a dozen years.
After Challenger and Columbia, I think even if it were free it would be too expensive.
I'd like to emphasize this: Even given for free it is expensive.
The Space Shuttle now belongs in a museum. I'm really amazed we haven't built something even halfways better. But then again, Irak, Afghanistan, Wall Street and Lobbies don't come in cheap.