Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Space Shuttle Discovery arrives at its new home
April 17, 2012 4:25 PM   Subscribe

The Space Shuttle Discovery, known for launching the Hubble telescope, as well as being the workhorse of the fleet, made a final flight today.

After being cleaned up and prepped, it was mated to a specially modified 747 and flown from Florida to Washington DC. Upon approach to DC, it was flown around the city before landing.

The decomissioned spacecraft will become an exhibit at The National Air and Space Museum .

Can't wait? No problem, there's an up close and personal tour of the orbiter, in three parts.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (55 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
.
posted by KHAAAN! at 4:29 PM on April 17, 2012


I think every single one of my friends in DC got a picture of this and sent it to me.
posted by empath at 4:31 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sad end to the era of American manned spaceflight.

.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:31 PM on April 17, 2012


Anyone else attending the handover ceremony at Udvar-Hazy on Thursday?
posted by djb at 4:31 PM on April 17, 2012


POTUS should have been onboard so Discovery's last flight could be as Air Force One.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:35 PM on April 17, 2012 [10 favorites]


Too bad they couldn't retrofit it for passenger service; seems like it would be exciting to fly into space.
posted by Renoroc at 4:36 PM on April 17, 2012


This morning I was sitting in my office in Beltsville, MD, when I hear a large, low-flying aircraft. I looked out of my window in time to see Discovery fly over. It's easy to feel jaded sometimes, and then you see something as marvelous as that, and the little boy that's buried deep inside of you feels inconsolably sad to know that she's never going to fly again. At least I can take my kids to see her, you know, and remember that there was a time when we dreamed big in America.
posted by wintermind at 4:41 PM on April 17, 2012 [14 favorites]


Flew right over my building. Twice. Showing off? The fighter key escort really gave perspective. It was so tiny compared to airplane/space shuttle mutant
posted by atomicstone at 4:42 PM on April 17, 2012


Key=jet
posted by atomicstone at 4:43 PM on April 17, 2012


And, in many respects, the Age of American Empire enters its twilight.
posted by Malor at 4:51 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


At least I can take my kids to see her, you know, and remember that there was a time when we dreamed big in America.

Provided the Smithsonian is still around after a couple more decades of tax cuts.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:51 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's as close we'll get to a spaceship in our lifetimes until our future Chinese overlords send us to work in their moon base unobtanium mines.
posted by crunchland at 4:55 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


The future didn't turn out to be bright in the way we had hoped; it's all gleam and no lustre.

There seems to be little room for dreams and the dreamers that strive to make them real in this polished era of technology-as-convenience.

.
posted by flippant at 5:07 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm helping with a si.edu documentary on the last shuttle flights and their final transition into museum artifacts. Here are some of my photos of the Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft landing with Discovery today, shot from just off final on runway 1R, and some from the STS-133 launch last year. Tomorrow I'll be doing aerial photography of the de-mating of Discovery from the Carrier Aircraft and Thursday of the nose-to-nose with Enterprise.

I'm sad to see the Shuttle program end without a proper replacement for manned flights ready in the wings. Yes, the Saturn V to Shuttle was five years without a manned capability, but the engineering was already underway for the new program.
posted by autopilot at 5:10 PM on April 17, 2012 [9 favorites]


POTUS should have been onboard so Discovery's last flight could be as Air Force One.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:35 PM on April 17


And, in many respects, the Age of American Empire enters its twilight.
posted by Malor at 4:51 PM on April 17


How fitting, Obama as the Omega.
posted by codswallop at 5:12 PM on April 17, 2012


As I scientist I try to tell myself that what I'm doing is cool and futuristic and everything, and it is. Lasers and DNA and almost unimaginably cheap computation and whatnot. But it feels a lot more like a John Brunner future than an Arthur C. Clarke one.

T.D. Strange, you're gonna make me cry. I need a drink.
posted by wintermind at 5:16 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Burhanistan: "POTUS should have been onboard so Discovery's last flight could be as Air Force One."

My first thought was "Nah, Obama would never do that......but Biden would totally stowaway on a spaceship"
posted by schmod at 5:16 PM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Felt uncomfortably like a funeral procession.
posted by hoot at 5:20 PM on April 17, 2012


Sad end to the era of American manned spaceflight.
posted by odinsdream at 5:22 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The maudlin among you should note that Space X is set to launch a Dragon spacecraft at the end of the month. If the in orbit tests go well, it'll then dock with the ISS, becoming the first private craft to do so.

Space X is working on doing manned flights.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:23 PM on April 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think part of the reason I've never been impressed with the shuttle is the fact that I was just a little kid when the Challenger blew up, so in my mind the space shuttle doesn't seem like new technology, but rather old technology that's always been around and always been a mechanical piece of junk. And to me the idea of having positive feelings for for it seems absurd.

The idea of the shuttle as a "Symbol of America" seems completely absurd, unless it's a symbol of absurd technological boondoggles brought about by lobbyist sponsored porkbarrel spending.

We would have been far better off sticking with capsule systems, like the Russians did. They built one Shuttle clone and promptly realized it was a total waste of money.

And honestly, you people need to calm down. "the Age of American Empire enters its twilight." "The future didn't turn out to be bright in the way we had hoped" Really!?

The space shuttle was a HUGE waste of money. It was totally inefficient for sending people to space. It was designed to haul satellites up and service spy satellites - but it was a huge waste of money in that respect.

The basic problem is that when you send people into space, it's much more expensive per pound because you want it to be much more reliable then for launching satellites. If you launch a satellite, you can simply price in the expected cost of a failure. So if you lose 1/100 you simply calculate the cost as 1% more expensive.

Of course, the shuttle ended up being really unsafe anyway which is why it's not used anymore. When it was designed Feynman estimated it would fail 1/100 flights, while NASA expected it to survive 1/10,000 flights. Ultimately, given the two data points we have the failure rate was 1/87 or something like that.

The older style capsule systems are far cheaper for launching people into space. And you can launch people and cargo separately, and save money on both.
Too bad they couldn't retrofit it for passenger service; seems like it would be exciting to fly into space.
Especially knowing you had a 1/100 chance of not making it back! I mean, the one civilian who's ever ridden on died.

On the other hand Soyuz capsules which are used for passenger service, to the space station, and cost far, far less. (You can stay on the space station for $20m, and a ride on the Soyuz capsule is probably only a small part of that cost)

Why on earth would you want to ride on a Shuttle instead of a Soyuz.

I think the replacement system that is being considered would be to launch a small shuttle like system that would only carry people, while heavy payloads would be launched independently. There are also lots of private companies working on building space craft that can launch satellites and carry people into space in the U.S.

I say good riddance. The shuttle has probably done more to hold back space exploration then help it over the past few decades.
posted by delmoi at 5:25 PM on April 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


I say good riddance. The shuttle has probably done more to hold back space exploration then help it over the past few decades.

I think the pessimists wish there was a credible follow-up plan to continue manned missions before retiring the shuttle. And are perhaps more realistic about the national attitude for the foreseeable future, if it doesn't kill people, it's unlikely to get much funding consideration.

The Constellation may not have been perfect, but was a more or less fully conceptualized replacement program during the Bush administration, and Obama promptly axed it for...some sort of ill-define public-private partnership....thing, in 2015ish, maybe. Provided there's still money and Congress can pass a budget. Spin it however you like, that is a monumental national loss on every level.
posted by T.D. Strange at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think the replacement system that is being considered would be to launch a small shuttle like system that would only carry people, while heavy payloads would be launched independently.

I suspect you're thinking of Constellation program, with Ares rockets. That was canceled back in 2010. NASA's new ride is the Space Launch System.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:46 PM on April 17, 2012


My office window has an amazing panoramic view of the DC skyline (from the West). The shuttle flew between my office window and the Washington Monument - several times. One of my co-workers got building maintenance to open up the roof so he could get pictures.
posted by COD at 6:04 PM on April 17, 2012


I heard Discover+escorts fly over my office in Rosslyn this morning. I looked outside but *barely* missed seeing them :(

On a side note, I visited Kennedy Space Center while in Florida last fall. While there, I was fortunate enough to see Endeavor in the process of being prepped for eventual display in Los Angeles. There was something kind of sad about seeing the shuttle sitting in a hanger bay partially disassembled, much of the equipment stripped out, waiting to be sent to a museum. End of an era indeed.

.
posted by photo guy at 6:30 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post, BB, thanks.

Even delmoi acquitted himself reasonably well. Although Soyuz tourism flights cost more like $50M now, and anyway you can't get them until the US starts launching again and frees up that third seat.

The Constellation may not have been perfect, but was a more or less fully conceptualized replacement program during the Bush administration, and Obama promptly axed it for...some sort of ill-define public-private partnership....thing, in 2015ish, maybe. Provided there's still money and Congress can pass a budget. Spin it however you like, that is a monumental national loss on every level.

Constellation was burning money at a titanic rate and not ever getting closer to its goal. Success was always 5-7 years away, several years into the program. Obama's cancellation of it looks to me like him, once again, making the tough but prudent decision.

Now, it was "cancelled" only inasmuch as we now have SLS, another massive program that may go somewhere,or may just suck up funds for 5-7 years before it fizzles out as well. That's fine, it's Congress' job program, as long as we still keep throwing a comparitively tiny amount of money towards SpaceX and the like (Orbital, Boeing, Blue Origin, even VG). Because they are going to revolutionize space access, and a lot sooner than you think.

Sad end to the era of American manned spaceflight.

Less constructively, OH JUST SHADDUP ALREADY, you reactionary tool. Go have a drink with Gene Cernan. An era? Sure. The era? No.

You know where I'll be on May 3rd? Glued to NASA TV,watching the SpaceX C2/C3 flight (cough, C2+) running through its test approach to ISS. That will be an historic day, biggest day in manned spaceflight in 2012, and it probably won't even appear above the fold on the newspapers the next day.
posted by intermod at 7:14 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Constellation may not have been perfect, but was a more or less fully conceptualized replacement program during the Bush administration...

...that was a complete and utter failure. They rewrote the target specs on the Ares I four times, and finally ended up with the insertion orbit *requiring* the CEV to thrust to make orbit. In other words, the Ares I was unable to put its designated payload into VLEO, much less stable LEO.

This little factoid made the CEV guys very, well, angry, because suddenly they had to come up with some, oh, three to six *thousand* kilograms of tankerage for fuel they'd need to make orbit because the goddamn booster couldn't do the job.

This was, of course, after requiring a new, 5 segment SRB to act as the first stage, and a new version of a engine we haven't flown in 40 years for the second stage, the J-2X. The only thing that was going to be reused from STS in this "Shuttle Derived Vehicle" was the engine on the CEV, which was based on the OMS engine from the Shuttle -- but wait, the OMS engine on the shuttle is the RL-10 from the Apollo SM, so that's not even Shuttle Derived!

Extra mass, extra cost, and in the end, all of that made damn sure it could not do the job it was required to do. The Ares I had *exactly* one job to do, which was to put the Orion CEV into LEO.

And it could not do it. Period. The design was a complete failure.

So, the Obama Administration did the exact right thing. They hauled it out back and shot it.

Obama promptly axed it for...some sort of ill-define public-private partnership....thing, in 2015ish, maybe.

Who the hell do you think was building the Ares I? USAF? No, in fact, the same guys who are designing/building SLS.

This sort of complaint -- that Obama killed Constellation for some Public/Private bullshit -- just drives me insane. The *exact same people* who were going to build Constellation are building SLS. Who's building the solids? Morton Thiokol. Who's building the main stage tanking? Lockheed Martin. Who's going to build the Orion MPCV of the SLS? Lockheed Martin/Boeing, the exact same team that was building the Constellation CEV.

The Obama Administration -- in particular, Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator (and retired Major General, USMC *and* retired NASA astronaut with over 28 days on orbit in four missions, two in command.) took a look at the program, saw that it was bleeding money *and* capacity, and killed it.

Now, if they'd only do the same thing to the F-35 nightmare, but that's another rant entirely.

You make think that Space-X will make this all go away. Maybe you're right -- but guess who paid to develop the Falcon 9? Hint -- it ends with ASA.
posted by eriko at 7:24 PM on April 17, 2012 [12 favorites]


Wow, how sad. For some reason I thought the last shuttle flight already happened. Why did I think this?

But man, when he's like 3k+ MPH... 4k... 5...6... 12k+ I'm like YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

I love driving fast on the highway. But 12k MPH?

That's not even close to the fastest man made object, btw... That would be Helios at 157,078 mph.

Anyways... 3-2-1 contact. early 80s. There they are talking about them strapping in for the ride. So I, a young boy of no more than 6 or 7 years old, proceed to lie on the floor with my feet perched up on the footstool, counting down for offblast!.

Oh the joys.

I never got to the level of Dee Dee in space... But damn my imagination tried...
posted by symbioid at 7:35 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


In related news...

For the first time ever, China has launched more rockets into orbit in a year than the U.S. In 2011, the Chinese sent 19 rockets into space. The U.S. sent just 18.

But never fear...

Washington is projected to possess the biggest space arsenal for decades to come.
posted by fairmettle at 7:37 PM on April 17, 2012


A friend won some contest and got to be at NASA for the landing of the last shuttle flight last year. Among the goodies she brought back was a small toy shuttle that my five year old currently flies around the house.

We haven't told him that the shuttle program ended. Instead we watch a lot of ISS video and hope that the US has real manned flight again by the time he's old enough to realize our current deception. For about a year, he's told us that he wants to grow up to be 'a scientist who teaches astronoughts' and I'm a little afraid that understanding that there is no manned US program right now will be somewhat heartbreaking for him.

NASA feeds little boys dreams in ways that projects like Space X never will.
posted by anastasiav at 8:07 PM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Meh...

I remember sitting in my flat in London, in 1983 and heard an unusual howl of jet engines. It was the Shuttle Enterprise going past the window. (yes, I know Enterprise never went into space, and this isn't my photo...)

So unexpected, but so memorable for that reason.
posted by marvin at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2012


Constellation was burning money at a titanic rate and not ever getting closer to its goal. Success was always 5-7 years away, several years into the program. Obama's cancellation of it looks to me like him, once again, making the tough but prudent decision.

Less constructively, OH JUST SHADDUP ALREADY, you reactionary tool. Go have a drink with Gene Cernan. An era? Sure. The era? No.

I'll just note that the first proposed SLS mission isn't until 2017, if 5-7 years away was the problem... But, eriko's explanation of the situation makes much more sense (and was less needlessly ad-hominem), maybe the administration should hire him to explain the strategy better, because "some public-private bullshit" was about all I've ever gotten out of Obama's public statements.

NASA feeds little boys dreams in ways that projects like Space X never will.

And this.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:31 PM on April 17, 2012


Here's my video of the SCA landing at IAD with Discovery, as seen from directly underneath final on runway 1R. The wake blew my hat off (not shown in the video).
posted by autopilot at 8:34 PM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


I say good riddance. The shuttle has probably done more to hold back space exploration then help it over the past few decades.

Hear hear! Shear stupidity from the start, and it took so long to stop. It did fuel little boys dreams, to be sure, but should that really be a priority for this kind of project/spending? Larry Niven is still alive you know.
posted by Chuckles at 8:51 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now, if they'd only do the same thing to the F-35 nightmare,

The idea that a single airframe should serve as both VTOL and traditional aircraft is insane, of course, but do you have any concise rant that goes into details?
posted by Chuckles at 8:53 PM on April 17, 2012


I went to Udvar-Hazy this morning and took photos from several vantage points. Hope the NYC and LA MeFites can get out to see Enterprise and Endeavour arrive at their respective airports -- Discovery's final flight was definitely worth getting out of the office for!
posted by evoque at 9:05 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


That video of the crew launching Hubble was pure spaceporn.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:57 PM on April 17, 2012


and the little boy that's buried deep inside of you feels inconsolably sad to know that she's never going to fly again

I'm not sad. I loved the Shuttle, but sheesh, she was older (in service longer) than the entire professional career of the Coen brothers. And ... retirement in one piece beats the alternative.

Too bad they couldn't retrofit it for passenger service; seems like it would be exciting to fly into space.

Exciting -- you bet! A mere 39 compression/decompression cycles to total vacuum! Wiring that dates to the Carter administration! A completely inappropriate vehicle profile for safe passenger travel! ("In the event of a water landing, you will sink.") What more could you want?

and remember that there was a time when we dreamed big in America.

If there was a definitive ending to that era, it was the cancellation of the Supercollider.

As for delmoi -- so much wrong with your comment I don't honestly know where to begin. Sure something about as old as you are is going to seem old hat, but I'm about the same age as the Moon program and I still see that with wondrous eyes. And surely, whatever you think of its success, one of the largest engineering projects in history is symbolic of America and how we go about things, even how we fail at things. You have to remember that back in the capsule era, a reusable spaceplane seemed like a really great idea, and still is as a general principle. The Russians didn't cancel Buran because it was a bad idea, but because they had a robust array of launch systems and Buran was expensive and the USSR was broke. But they had a very similar objective.

As to Shuttle being a waste of money, it's true that it turned out that way, but believe me, nobody expected that. Most of the waste wasn't so much the cost of individual flights as the overall cost of maintaining a launch assembly line and all while only flying 6-8 times a year, far below the design intent. Keep in mind that your per-pound launch costs are based on actual results, with a lot of sunk costs amortized in. Obviously if the 1960s NASA/USAF engineers had had those in hand some different expectations might have been in play. Then you say Feynman, who wasn't involved in the Shuttle design, gave it a 1/100 failure rate, but if he did it was a BOTE estimate from the post-Challenger Rogers Commission (where he showed how brittle the O-rings could get by dropping a sample in his water glass). One of the conclusions of that commission was that NASA had used far too rosy numbers for its safety estimates. But even as is the Shuttle is a "safe" human-rated system. You're missing the point that NASA was launching commercial satellites in part to satisfy Congressional mandates that the program find ways to pay for itself and the Rogers Commission effectively relieved them of that responsibility -- and this freed up resources ultimately used to build ISS. A good trade-off, IMHO.

Why on earth would you want to ride on a Shuttle instead of a Soyuz.

There are many reasons, among them cargo capacity, shirtsleeve on-orbit environment, and on and on. Soyuz is cheaper, and arguably somewhat safer, but you give up a lot to fly in it. For one thing, Soyuz cosmonauts have to fit a certain height and weight profile to fit in the seats and the Orlan suits, something that has barred some NASA astronauts from making the trip. Let's not lose sight of the objective advantages of a launch system you clearly have negative feelings for. Believe me, without a Mir, Mir-2 or ISS at the other end, no way am I riding a Soyuz for two weeks, if that were even conceivably possible.

The shuttle has probably done more to hold back space exploration then help it over the past few decades.

Whatever launch system you build is going to have limitations and constraints. Some of Shuttle's were cooked into it from the get-go and then baked in by political considerations. I think there's an argument that the enormous overhead of the Shuttle program helped starve planetary science and other programs. But we're so far away from a viable interplanetary crewed capability that I don't think Shuttle played much of a role in delaying a man-on-Mars mission, and the various components of the program have taught us a great deal that will be of use.

mean, the one civilian who's ever ridden on died.

Whoa whoa whoa. First of all, Sen. Jake Garn preceded her into space. Prince Sultan Salman Abdelazize Al-Saud did, too, and although he was a pilot, he was hardly a professional astronaut; it was pretty much a courtesy flight. Then Rep. Bill Nelson flew, then came Challenger. Also, though it's an even finer distinction, many of the payload specialists were technically "civilians".

But in a sense, yes, NASA was making a big deal about the Teacher in Space program being an ordinary person, but they were also being disingenuous for PR purposes.

For the first time ever, China has launched more rockets into orbit in a year than the U.S. In 2011, the Chinese sent 19 rockets into space. The U.S. sent just 18.

Yabbut -- I'm going with "[The US] constitutes 65 percent of worldwide spending" on space for the win. China is furiously launching stuff to catch up as their economy comes close to the size of ours. They have a need for satellites for their GPS alternative, Beidou, so that's going to drive launch rates higher for the next decade. Really, this comparison is about as useful as the one which says that China has the world's largest army. Yeah -- that can't get anywhere.

For some reason I thought the last shuttle flight already happened.

In case you're not kidding: The last orbital flight was STS-135, last July. This "flight" was moving the decommissioned orbiter to the Smithsonian.

I'm a little afraid that understanding that there is no manned US program right now

There is still an astronaut corps, and there are two Americans onboard ISS this minute. What we don't have is an independent launch capability. In the absence of one, or even when this changes, I see no harm in giving your kid a toy shuttle. It probably has more negative associations for you than he'll ever have.

It did fuel little boys dreams, to be sure, but should that really be a priority for this kind of project/spending?

Shuttle -- officially the Space Transportation System -- was intended from the start to be more prosaic and dare I say useful than Apollo. One of the early satellite delivery missions had the astronauts proclaim themselves the "Space Trucking Service". Sure, it didn't work out that way, especially with the post-Challenger changes, but NASA was in reality struggling to maintain public interest in the program from the beginning, as it seemed too "routine". Indeed, as had happened with Apollo 13, by the time of Challenger most of the live coverage had evaporated; seven astronauts getting killed changed that, but I don't know when the last live broadcast coverage was after the internet became available.
posted by dhartung at 12:07 AM on April 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


When that shot of a shuttle parked on an aircraft carrier was doing the rounds, I hoped against hope, for one second, that some lunatic had actually landed it from flight.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:06 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


.
posted by drezdn at 5:47 AM on April 18, 2012


But we're so far away from a viable interplanetary crewed capability that I don't think Shuttle played much of a role in delaying a man-on-Mars mission, and the various components of the program have taught us a great deal that will be of use.

Hey dhartung, if you've got time, I'd love to hear what you think the positive elements are that were learned from the STS or links to similar. The negative elements are obvious, sadly.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 AM on April 18, 2012


Whoa: "Now that Discovery is safely delivered to the Smithsonian, I think I can tell the story of how we nearly lost her in July of 2005, and how well intentioned, highly motivated, hard working, smart people can miss the most obvious."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:40 AM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also seen in the skies over D.C. yesterday: the Space Shuttle Challenger.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:04 AM on April 18, 2012


Neal Stephenson laments the death of the Shuttle program and sees it as emblematic of the death of innovation in America.
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:19 AM on April 18, 2012


Also seen in the skies over D.C. yesterday: the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Are these the same tweeters who didn't know Titanic was more than a Cameron movie?
posted by NorthernLite at 9:03 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I noted in reading comments elsewhere yesterday that many people talked about how big it looked. Uh-uh. When I had a chance to view it up close on the ground Discovery seemed remarkably tiny and fragile. They only look big stacked on a ginormous external tank or the back of that plane.
posted by NorthernLite at 9:06 AM on April 18, 2012


Arguing that something is a big waste of money is relative and doesn't really get us anywhere in the discussion of exploration. The big problem with STS, as dhartung aptly pointed out, is the massive fixed cost for operating the system.

NASA actually was able to bring the STS program online very close to within budget restraints - but that unfortunately forced a lot of compromises into the design, primary was accepting higher operating and fixed costs than they originally envisioned. In other words: given more money up front the end product would have been less expensive to operate and more safe.

The way that I view the STS program is as a series of admittedly expensive lessons on engineering, management, government oversight/meddling and operating at the very margins of human capability.

See, one of the main reasons STS was so damned expensive is because it literally pushed the boundaries of most of our aerospace and materials knowledge. Everything about it had to be more or less invented and developed as they designed and built it. Nobody had developed a reusable thermal protection system of the scale the orbiter required. Nobody had developed liquid hydrogen and oxygen based engines that were required to develop the amount of power that the SSMEs did - WITH the added requirement of being reusable.

The TPS and SSME programs alone were revolutionary - but the avionics and software that STS required were nothing short of "oh, shit" programs. Bleeding off 17,500 mph worth of speed without destroying the vehicle and crew and then precisely landing it on a runway with a massive cross-range potential....wow. Some people *really* knew their math to make that happen.

We can talk about cost effectiveness of just about anything and whether it's economical, but that is merely one aspect of the discussion. Health care is anything but economical, the legal system is incredibly costly and education is a major burden on society. We spend time, money and resources on all of these things because they are necessary. I would group exploration into this category of "necessary" expenses, and while STS kept us in low earth orbit for the last thirty years I would argue that it was an exploration of engineering, management and operational limitations and how to overcome them (or not).

I think that the lessons of STS are wide ranging and will grace engineering and management textbooks for decades to come. An expensive series of lessons perhaps, but valuable nonetheless.

One final thing - had NASA been able to evolve the system as originally planned I think we would have ended up with a very good launch platform. There were plans and extensive work was complete on an unmanned cargo carrier (Shuttle-C, which was again investigated a few years ago as a replacement for the orbiter), liquid rocket boosters, an evolved version of the SSMEs that would have permitted something like five flights between refurbishment, replacements for the APUs, propellant crossfeed for the RCS/OMS systems, updated avionics systems, etc. All of these components were designed to further reduce operational expenses, reduce turnaround times, improve safety, increase cargo capacity and increase the overall capabilities of the STS program.

The biggest failure of the system was the "all your eggs in one basket" approach to spaceflight. Shuttle ended up being tasked with being all things to all people and that was a tragic failure early in the planning stages. Had we developed a smaller human orbiter and a larger cargo carrier that piggybacked on the same launch stack we might be in a very different place today. But that's all water under the bridge. At this point I just want to be certain we keep pushing the boundaries and don't lose the energy required to do that. Space is hard. It's dangerous. More people will die and more mistakes will be made, but we cannot stop.
posted by tgrundke at 9:54 AM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have to add one additional comment to my screed above: the demise of the STS program is also emblematic of a loss of appetite for risk. Again, space is hard and by its very nature, at this stage of the game, implies lots of risk and lots of failure. We need to be accepting of the failure so long as we learn from it, improve and get better.

If we're not getting better and pushing boundaries we're really just stagnating. That's no fun, is it?
posted by tgrundke at 10:11 AM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


NASA actually was able to bring the STS program online very close to within budget restraints

Channelling jessamyn: O_o

The way that I view the STS program is as a series of admittedly expensive lessons on engineering, management, government oversight/meddling and operating at the very margins of human capability.

Lessons, yes I guess so. Redundant and
pedantic, but lessons none the less..

Maybe you've never read this: Beam Me Out Of This Death Trap, Scotty. From the April 1980 edition of Washington Monthly.

The TPS and SSME programs alone were revolutionary - but the avionics and software that STS required were nothing short of "oh, shit" programs. Bleeding off 17,500 mph worth of speed without destroying the vehicle and crew and then precisely landing it on a runway with a massive cross-range potential....wow. Some people *really* knew their math to make that happen.

"Oh, shit" like this from that recent fixie thread, I think. YouTube had the right reaction to that kind of stunt:
I think we're all a little dumber for´╗┐ having watched this.
crouchingturbo 1 year ago 20
Lots of interesting accomplishments and extremely competent engineering, as far as it goes. What do you call brilliance in pursuit of a stupid goal?

I'm strongly in favour of spending government money on speculative ventures. I don't think there is any point quibbling about how much is the right amount in this context. I do think we need to recognize boondoggle when it happens.
posted by Chuckles at 1:05 PM on April 18, 2012


Sorry, Chuckles, but that's just too much of a jaded perspective for me to accept. I get your points, but it's throwing the baby out with the bath water. As I said earlier, a successful nation must be willing to accept setbacks, failures and mistakes, otherwise you might as well not wake up in the morning.
posted by tgrundke at 7:32 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I said earlier, a successful nation must be willing to accept setbacks, failures and mistakes, otherwise you might as well not wake up in the morning.

QFT.

We built STS, true -- but it did amazing things. Do you realize that it put the Hubble Space Telescope up, and fixed it four times -- and that damn telescope is now old enough to drink?

We landed on the Moon. We have done great things, and we may do them again. And nobody -- nobody at all -- except the United States is still actively building a 70+ ton to LEO booster.

Nobody.

Why?

Because all you need, if all you care about the is the Earth, is 10 tons to GTO. 70+ tons to LEO means you're thinking beyond that. And, much like the green grass at Wrigley, or the Blues with a 100 point season, that is a power.

It's a scary, amazing, incredible power. It's hope. Somebody is dreaming big -- and of big dreams come big things. We've flung five probes out of the solar system -- okay, they haven't gotten there yet, but they will. We've sent a probe to a planet that isn't a planet anymore. We're sending a 900kg rover to Mars -- 900kg. How significant is that mass?

That's a Mini Cooper. With a driver. And a passenger. And a lunch basket.

We're hurting, yes. But we're not dead yet. And unlike ULA, or Space X, or Scaled Composites, we're not thinking LEO. We're thinking "How much do we need in LEO to get somewhere really cool?"

Between the Soviet Union/Russia and the US, we've kept humanity in space for over 11 years non-stop, and there are no plans for stopping anytime soon.

We still do great things. I know, in the current climate, that's hard to believe. I saw STS-1, and STS-135, leap to the sky, and while I know that STS-135 was the end, I know that it wasn't the end of everything. I know, if we really care, what STS-135 was was simple -- what Winston Churchill knew at the end of the Battle of Britain, when the British isle had been saved by The Few.

It wasn't the end, or the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I wear the Meatball logo. I wear it with pride. We have done great things, and if we have a will, NASA will do more great things.

Call me a fool. I might actually agree with you. But cynical bitterness can't last you forever -- trust me on that. At some point, you have to commit. At some point, you have to put your hopes on the line.
posted by eriko at 8:08 PM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Brandon, tgrundke vastly improved on my admittedly vague response, which would have been a sort of "Um ... everything?"

I also wanted to mention the Shuttle-C and other Shuttle Derived Vehicles (there was a whole class of such paper planes). Many of them were envisioned, of course, for lofting Space Station Freedom, and weren't needed after it was cancelled. ISS became an amalgam of Russia's Mir-2 and the ESA's spacelab instead. But that would have been an interesting alternate direction for the program to go, and more obviously evolutionary instead of the dead end it may feel like (and I'm arguing it wasn't) today.

Chuckles, believe you me, anybody who knows anything about the Shuttle knows that article. Easterbrook is basically a surefire argument starter. While I agree broadly with some of his views, he is scorned by more technically minded space types for, I guess, getting a few crucial details wrong and mischaracterizing other things as more dramatic than they really were. Just keep in mind that any engineering effort worth its salt is going to have doubters and even naysayers. It's in the nature of the thing.

The way you bring it up, as if it proves something in and of itself, is the same thing that used to have engineers jump on me in sci.space. It's one side of the story. I don't dismiss that article the way they do, but I'm talking in this thread about the positives that came from the program. They're real, even if you don't think the price was worth it.

As to
NASA actually was able to bring the STS program online very close to within budget restraints

The budget constraint here was the very nebulous and then Congress pulled the plug, which didn't actually happen (at least not until it was inevitable). The program flew hundreds of people to orbit and yes back despite some casualties along the way. It accomplished a great deal, for space science, for astronomy, and many more domains. Because this was done within financial limitations that Congress approved again and again, it can reasonably be said that it was within budget restraints.

If you're not thinking of Shuttle (or NASA more generally) in political terms you're not really thinking about it seriously at all.

I do think we need to recognize boondoggle when it happens.

Well, there are many definitions of boondoggle. For me, it's closer to something that doesn't work, as opposed to something that turns out to be more difficult and expensive than expected, which is quite common. At this scale, of course .... it's more obvious. I wouldn't characterize Shuttle as having never worked. It was far from perfect, but it's silly to dismiss it entirely. I can guarantee you that if we wait for the perfect space vehicle created by the perfect political process run by the perfect space agency and built by the perfect space contractor, you will wait a very long time indeed.
posted by dhartung at 12:49 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


dhartung, I was sure you'd be familiar with the article :)

Anyway, I agree, Shuttle accomplished a lot. My point is, it was ill conceived from the start. Not just because of competing interests and bureaucracy, but because a manned space truck is a really dumb idea--don't put the people with the cargo. Okay, okay.. To be more fair, in 1970 just a moderately dumb idea. By 1990 though, really super duper stupid.

I think the space geek argument boils down to $170 billion on 40 years of Shuttle development and flight is just not that much money. Any accomplishment, at that rate, is worthy. At the same time they think we have to be all RA! RA! U-S-A! U-S-A! in order to get any money at all.... Ugh.

I can here the cries already.. Not "any" accomplishment, no no no.. Shuttle did this and that and the other, and those are super awesome things! To which I say, try not to fall for your own propaganda if you want to be taken seriously.
posted by Chuckles at 11:31 AM on April 19, 2012


> Channelling jessamyn: O_o

Just FYI, this is pretty common on the internet and didn't originate with any staff members here.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:32 AM on April 19, 2012


I just can't agree with that general a conclusion, Chuckles -- I think a space truck remains a tremendously good idea in principle, and in a future heterogenous space environment there will be space sports cars, space minivans, space buses, and space trucks. It may not be the vehicle we need right now. But Shuttle was born of the need to support future uses that couldn't entirely be conceived, and the way it developed has influenced our thinking on what we do need. Shuttle was politically forged from two not entirely dissimilar proposals and as a result, politically, was forced to be all things to all people.

It could be, fatalistically, said that this led in a series of lemony snicket events to have directly influenced the demise of two vehicles. But that still doesn't invalidate the initial decisions or the concept itself.

Look, this is a bit like the urban legend about how to write notes in space, NASA spent a million dollars developing the space pen, whereas the Russians used a pencil. In both respects the tale is not precisely correct, and it's incorrect in ways that tend to illuminate the biases of the teller.

So, today, we get this recapitulated as "NASA spent billions of dollars developing a general-purpose orbiter, while the Russians developed a crew launcher and a cargo launcher that just worked." The thing is that the Russian space program was shaped by political and financial constraints the same way the US one was, and they developed a vehicle and station environment that suited them. The US, facing different but in some ways analogous constraints, tried to develop a vehicle that would serve many different roles, and in the history of the program it did indeed do so. Yes, it was more expensive than predicted, and yes, it had problems directly related to the technical complexity of the system, but it still performed well in the context of the program that adapted to the Shuttle's cost and capability limitations.

Now, I was someone who wanted a more robust space program. I wanted Shuttle Derived Vehicles, so we could do more and different stuff. I wanted a space station years before it ever launched. I wanted a Mars mission, or a Moon base, or anything. I wanted asteroid mining and L5 colonies, and thought I might get them in my lifetime. Well, launch costs make a lot of that dreaming just that. And Challenger put paid to a lot of options that might have been.

After the first Return to Flight NASA was, as I said, relieved of some of the things weighing on it to be all things to all people. It dropped both commercial sat launches and most military missions. USAF developed the new Titans and the private launch industry blossomed, especially with Iridium. Those were both good things. NASA breathed a sigh of relief and realized it could accomplish its more limited science missions with the lower launch rate. Then the Cold War ended and we got the biggest peace dividend in the object of ISS, which melded together in a familiar politically-driven style two programs that by themselves weren't likely to be funded -- Freedom and Mir-2. With this, suddenly everything came together and it became the perfect mission for Shuttle. Without it, the program might have faced much earlier cancellation, and it remained longer than it might have once ISS needed to be supported. Thee's a lot that has come out of ISS, not the leas of which is practical cooperation between various space powers. The mutual learning process has had tremendous benefits by itself. And we got our space station, helping cement the idea of permanent human occupation of the heavens.

Now, I hear your RA RA objection, but the truth is that's never been part of my view of the programs. (I remember a Canadian friend's review of Apollo 13: "Too American." Yeah, we tend to view these things as nearly religious expositions of the national character. In many ways it would be nice if NASA could relax and be a normal government agency, like, say, the agricultural beef inspectors, who don't go around waving flags and proclaiming the superiority of the American way of life as shown by what we eat -- well, as much anyway.) I'm definitely pro space. I just don't know what your alternative vision is, and the political and cost environment that will nurture and protect it. Sure, I can see a capsule/cargo split like the Russians have as being part of an alternate-reality US space program, but then we would probably have found a way to build Freedom and ended up with a less international space environment.

In the end, you can't deny that we did something nobody had done before, and in large part it worked. I still think that's pretty amazing, and I strongly reject your characterization of this as propaganda, nationalistic or otherwise. I'm sanguine about the negatives and do not deny that the program had some big ones. At this point, though, they're fairly moot.
posted by dhartung at 12:48 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Standing in the wings and hoping someone on stage ...  |  The Ugly Duckling (YT) or Dona... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments