Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Where, oh where, will my space shuttle go?
August 3, 2010 1:12 AM   Subscribe

The Space Shuttle is still retiring but a U.S. Senate plan (full text PDF), (House version) would add one more flight to the shuttle's career, probably sometime late next summer. The move comes as thousands of jobs stand to be eliminated with the shuttle's retirement.

This isn't the first attempt to delay the end of the Shuttle program. However, this plan looks more likely to succeed as the Washington Post reported, "the (Obama) administration broadly supported the committee plan.", which leaves key contracts in place in case future shuttle flights are needed. But what of the spaceships when they are finally mothballed? Discovery has already been promised to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. It will replace the Air and Space Museum's current shuttle test vehicle, Enterprise, on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Others have different plans for Discovery. The other shuttles, Atlantis and Endeavour, are being offered to museums around the country, for a price. NASA reduced that asking price for the space artifacts from $42 million to $28 million at the beginning of 2010.

20 institutions (not including the Air and Space Museum) from across the United States are competing to house one of the retired shuttles, they await NASA's decision. There are still two shuttle missions officially scheduled, STS-133 and STS-134.

A partial listing of institutions competing for the retired shuttles includes:

~Johnson Space Center, Houston
~National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio
~Museum of Flight, Seattle
~Intrepid Air and Space Museum, New York City
~Tulsa Air and Space Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
~Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, Bryan, Texas
~Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, McMinnville, Oregon (home of the Spruce Goose)
~California Science Center, Los Angeles
~Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Titusville, Florida
~Austin Planetarium, Austin, Texas
~Adler Planetarium, Chicago
~Plant 42, Palmdale, California

Other institutions had previously expressed interest in the retired shuttles, but an exhaustive list has proved elusive.

In addition, "Tucked into the NASA reauthorization bill that Congress is now taking up is a provision which directs NASA to give "priority consideration" to a site with a historical relationship with "either the launch, flight operations, or processing of the Space Shuttle orbiters."
posted by IvoShandor (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
SHORT TITLE.—This Act may be cited as the ‘‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010’’.

SHORTER TITLE: Earmark.

I was sitting in my dorm room at Georgia Tech in 1980 when the first shuttle landed watching it on TV. As the wheels touched down, someone across the way yelled "FUCK YOU RUSSIA" at the top of his lungs.

And so it seemed. It was not until 1988 that the Soviets launched their Buran copy. Russia's economic decline forced them to withdraw from the space race and they retired the Buran in 1993. Losers.

The Shuttle had a longer run, but the song apparently is going to end in the same way: America's economic decline is forcing it to retire. Guess we really showed them Ruskies!

I look very much forward to seeing one of these dinosaurs mounted in a museum!
posted by three blind mice at 2:12 AM on August 3, 2010


Am I the only one that wants the shuttle to hold on as long as it can? Do we (the US) have anything else lined up? No? Shit.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:13 AM on August 3, 2010


Ah, yes... Family circling around grampa's hospital bed arguing over who gets the urn.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:12 AM on August 3, 2010


If I'm not mistaken, the provision to give "priority" to certain states has been struck down and is no longer part of the bill.

Based on the scuttlebutt I've been hearing it is very likely that Atlantis will go to Wright-Patterson in Ohio due to her record of work on numerous Air Force missions, plus the fact that Wright-Pat is one of the few museums that has the stock capability to house one of the orbiters.

As I've said in previous posts on this topic, the manner in which Congress has handled NASA and the shuttle's retirement since George Bush's decision in 2004 has been utterly deplorable. Constellation was poorly conceived and funded and mainly due to the fact that politicos cannot see past a 2 - 4 year term, it makes long duration research and engineering projects nearly impossible any longer.

Fact is, for as expensive as she is to operate, no other vehicle has, nor will for the conceivable future, have the capabilities of the shuttle orbiter. Commercially sourced cargo and crew will come to fruition, but it is foolish to ditch a vehicle which is so thoroughly understood (finally, after 35 years) for a series of complete unknowns about which we need to develop an entirely new knowledge base. These are intricate, delicate, complex, interdependent systems that take years of actual flight data and experienced eyeballs to analyze. It's not like trading in your SUV for a Prius.

Say what you will about the shuttle program over the years - it has been a political failure, not an engineering failure. It is quite simply the most awesomely complex vehicle we've ever built and it's a damn near miracle it flies. There's something both romantic and humbling in that fact, and when it's gone, I know that a part of this country will be going with it. (cue retorts to my sappy, sentimentalist crap)
posted by tgrundke at 4:24 AM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


it has been a political failure, not an engineering failure.

I seem to recall 2 spectacular engineering failures.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:41 AM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure we really beat Russia with the Shuttle, seeing as next year, the Russians will still have a functioning, robust, and reliable manned launcher, capsule, and heavy lifter, while we'll have a bunch of swiftly-corroding monuments to military design interference, absurd malaise-era over-complication, and lowest-bidder deathtrap engineering, all designed to launch on what are, essentially, uncontrolled fireworks.

But hey, capitalism and all that. Yay for us!

We should park at least one of them next to the dismantled ruins of the two complete Saturn Vs and the other mission-ready Apollo 18+ gear we dumped because, you know, we've already been to the moon, right?
posted by sonascope at 4:52 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I seem to recall 2 spectacular engineering failures.

No, the engineers brought the issues. Higher ups overrode them, i.e. politics.
posted by nomadicink at 6:00 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised the shuttle program has lasted as long as it has considering that one third of the shuttle fleet has exploded on live television.
posted by applemeat at 6:17 AM on August 3, 2010


Maybe we ought to use the external tank as a space station that remains operational for a couple years then deorbits spectacularly amid high employment and an energy crisis, thus thwarting the incumbent President's chances for reelection paving the way for a movie celebrity to win the GOP ticket. (ARNOLD 2012!!!!)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:31 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


It'd be a damn shame if one of the shuttles didn't end up at Kennedy.
posted by rulethirty at 6:37 AM on August 3, 2010


The end of the Shuttle program is a bit like the end of airline service with Concorde. There's rational arguments for it all but it still feels very odd to have technological capability retreat instead of advance. And, for both, if you could see the amount of heart and soul poured into both programs the vehicles themselves would be literally glowing with quintessence.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:56 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


NASA is a victim of bad QC.
posted by buzzman at 7:07 AM on August 3, 2010


nnnnoooo.... NASA is a victim of trying to do nearly impossible things on a budget decided by politicians who have a negative understanding of science and engineering. Although "victim" isn't really the word I'd use. I'd prefer fucking triumphant superhero.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:12 AM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


The move comes as thousands of jobs stand to be eliminated with the shuttle's retirement.

But I thought the Federal government never created a single job?
posted by birdhaus at 7:24 AM on August 3, 2010


The end of the Shuttle program is a bit like the end of airline service with Concorde. There's rational arguments for it all but it still feels very odd to have technological capability retreat instead of advance.

It is a triumph of marketing that the public thought of Concorde and the shuttles as technologically advanced when both were cashed in well into their fourth decade of service. Look around your house for any other piece of technology designed during the Ford administration and tell me how well it works these days. I have read that NASA has employees who scour eBay for replacement parts for the shuttles, as many of the manufacturers are no longer equipped to produce them or are out of business entirely.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:33 AM on August 3, 2010


There's rational arguments for it all but it still feels very odd to have technological capability retreat instead of advance.

In neither case did/will technological capability retreat. At worst, you're seeing the recognition and admission that Concorde and the Shuttle were technological blind alleys.

Concorde was a blind alley primarily because it just doesn't do anything all that useful. It saves you three hours on the actual transatlantic leg of your trip, but that trip is going to be get to your airport, wait around for two or three hours, take your connecting flight to London or Paris, wait around for an hour or so, cross the pond, wait a bit, take another flight or a train to wherever you're actually going. tl;dr an SST that can only cross the Atlantic was never going to be anything more than a toy for rich people.

The shuttle was a blind alley for a whole host of reasons, most especially all the weird compromises and capabilities it was forced into by its design process. In the end it probably makes a lot more sense to have a big unmanned cargo booster throw the mass of the shuttle + payload into orbit and leave it there, instead of having to loft 175,000 pounds of dead weight that's just going to deorbit in a few days.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:31 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


No, the engineers brought the issues. Higher ups overrode them, i.e. politics.

No. Those failures were the result of poor design. Higher ups might have underestimated the seriousness of these design flaws, but the mistakes were made on the drawing board.
posted by three blind mice at 8:59 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Applemeat: I'm surprised the shuttle program has lasted as long as it has considering that one third of the shuttle fleet has exploded on live television.

Where is my soapbox. Oh here it is.

*ahem*

Space isn't friendly...it's a place where people can die. Many more people are going to die. But we can't explore space if the requirement is that there be no casualties; we can't do anything if the requirement is that there be no casualties. -Isaac Asimov
posted by Chipmazing at 9:16 AM on August 3, 2010


NASM will get one for sure, probably Discovery.

Johnson will get one for sure, probably Endeavour.

after that it is a toss up. Kennedy probably has the best chance.

that leaves the Enterprise test-article up for grabs, since NASM won't need it anymore, and there will definitely be a fight for it. being from Seattle, i'd really love to see that vehicle at the Museum of Flight, side by side with a 747 carrier plane. i know the MoF wants a "real" shuttle, but i think that kind of exhibit, carrier + test article would be tremendous, and link into Boeing's history with the shuttle program.
posted by striatic at 10:47 AM on August 3, 2010


and by "side by side" i mean with the enterprise in its special protective enclosure and the 747 carrier immediately outside that, in the airpark with the first jet powered Air Force One and Concorde.
posted by striatic at 10:55 AM on August 3, 2010


considering that one third of the shuttle fleet has exploded on live television

It's been a series of tests, you see:

The ocean. Vast. Unpredictable. Had to learn to navigate, to deal with storms, to avoid hidden things in the deeps. We passed the test, but it still claims lives every year.

Flight. All sorts of surprises. Adverse yaw. Aileron flutter. Your own senses will deceive you in the dark, or clouds. Shockwaves and heating at high mach. We passed the test, but it still claims lives every year.

Space. Oh boy. Vacuum. Hard radiation. Playing with engines that are basically controlled detonations. Hitting the atmosphere so fast that it strips electrons off your hull and leaves a trail of plasma across the sky. Landing on a world that is utterly hostile to human life, and coming back intact.
We've only begun to pass this test.

Yes, it will continue to cost lives should we have the courage to press on. I hope we do. Our greatest achievements should be in the future, not in the museum.
posted by bitmage at 1:53 PM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ricochet and Xenophobe, you can argue about whether or not the programs themselves became obsolete, or were even a good idea to begin with, and you can argue about the merits of the design, but the fact is that just like we lost the capability for manned lunar space flight, we have lost the technological capability for supersonic commercial passenger service, and we're about to lose the capability to do many of the things the Space Shuttle is capable of doing. That stands in contrast to many other areas of technology where, for example, we have not lost the ability to sail the oceans, or build integrated circuits and computers.

Three Blind Mice, while it is true that Shuttle has design flaws, it is clear that the primary responsibility for both accidents lies with program management. Every complex system has flaws and it is the responsibility of the operations community to be aware of them and act accordingly. For complicated reasons documented in accident investigation reports, that didn't happen and we all know the result. Just like Apollo, I am convinced that Shuttle is very close to the best vehicle that could have been built using the available resources to accomplish the assigned mission. Whether or not congress should have allocated more money, or not implicitly assigned those requirements due to the requirement to be the Air Force's launch vehicle, is an interesting question but it doesn't allow the mission management team to abdicate responsibility for operating the vehicle to the best of their ability.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:48 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


kuujjuarapik -

No, in both Challenger and Columbia the vehicles and subsystems performed exactly as the engineers predicted (nee, warned) they would perform, and in some studies, they significantly exceeded performance margins before failure.

In both cases the bureaucrats overruled very solid engineering data that showed the vehicles being operated outside of design specifications. In the case of Challenger, the vehicle was launched when temperatures were cold enough for the solid rocket o-rings to fail. In the case of Columbia a well documented and often studied phenomenon of foam shedding led to loss of vehicle in crew. Engineers had warned about this and documented several extreme cases (STS-27 being one of the most dramatic), but the problem, like the o-ring problem prior to 1986, was deemed an "acceptable risk".

The engineering teams were overrode in both cases for a myriad of issues, none of which were engineering related, I assure you.
posted by tgrundke at 5:04 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm with seanmpuckett on his comment above: despite political meddling and being tasked to perform superhuman feats with relatively little cash, NASA pulls off some pretty fucking brilliant stuff.

If you never met some of the grunts that work for the agency doing the real work you wouldn't understand. These are some of the most honest, hard working, thoughtful and inspirational people on the Earth. It's a shame they get tossed around as they do.
posted by tgrundke at 5:08 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


three blind mice -

"No. Those failures were the result of poor design. Higher ups might have underestimated the seriousness of these design flaws, but the mistakes were made on the drawing board."

Actually, that's not a fair statement. Yes, the launch vehicle could have been designed safer, and yes there were design compromises that precluded the shuttle from being as safe as it could have been, but that doesn't mean that both Columbia and Challenger were engineering failures.

As I said, in both instances the vehicles performed exactly as the engineers predicted they would perform under the circumstances involved. In both instances there were known system issues with foam shedding and o-rings that were documented and warned about. Management failed to heed these warnings and flew "as-is", accepting the risk at hand. Given additional time and money both issues could have been relatively easily resolved, but there was political pressure to keep the orbiters flying at all costs.

Engineering warned that cold temperatures would cause o-ring failure, and it did. They warned that the foam coating the external tank could shed and damage the vehicle, and it did. They requested the opportunity to fix these issues and were denied. The vehicles operated within their design parameters, and failed when pushed outside of their envelope.
posted by tgrundke at 5:15 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


the fact is that just like we lost the capability for manned lunar space flight, we have lost the technological capability for supersonic commercial passenger service, and we're about to lose the capability to do many of the things the Space Shuttle is capable of doing

We haven't lost any capabilities. We could start building a new Saturn V or Concorde (or Tu-144) or shuttle tomorrow; we haven't forgotten how. Or at least, I've never seen or heard of anything in those items being forgotten (as we temporarily forgot how to make FOGBANK). Doing any of them would just be very expensive, and probably not very sensible. But there's no reason we couldn't if pressed to for some reason.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:07 PM on August 3, 2010


ROU_Xenophobe,

Actually, yes, we have lost quite a few of those capabilities. You are correct, it would be very costly, and it would be costly because most of the engineering data upon which the Saturn V rocket, Apollo capsule and lunar landers were based has been destroyed, or is no longer useful data. More importantly, we're quickly losing many of the engineers who worked on these projects to old age, so with them goes an incredible wealth of knowledge.

Keep in mind that a lot of engineering work is art, not just science. It takes years of accumulated knowledge and experience that builds off of the previous generations' work. In the present case, we're essentially starting from scratch because the United States has not developed a new man-rated launch vehicle from scratch since the shuttle program began in earnest in 1972 - almost 40 years ago.

So yes, you are correct that we could do it with enough money tossed at the problem, but we're essentially starting from scratch instead of making incremental improvements.

Case in point is the Shuttle system itself. There have been major improvements planned for the system from day one to improve safety, reliability and reduce costs. Some of these have been implemented (SSME improvements, new avionics), but there were many more: replacing the hypergolic propellants for the RCS system with something much easier and safer to work with, replacing the APUs with a new generation system, filament-wound SRBs, five segment solid rockets, etc. The Shuttle-C concept, about 60% complete by the time it was cancelled in 1990, would have given us a cargo-only shuttle stack that would have helped reduce costs and increase payload capacity significantly. Had these incremental improvements come to fruition and Shuttle-C been fully developed, we'd have a significantly enhanced launched capability and cost structure.
posted by tgrundke at 5:09 AM on August 4, 2010


I've read in the past that since the last two missions are to the ISS there has to be a shuttle ready to launch in case of an emergency rescue. Thus the Atlantis will for all intents be pad ready. It would be a shame not to use it.
posted by Gungho at 7:26 AM on August 4, 2010


But who rescues the rescuers?!
posted by nomadicink at 7:35 AM on August 4, 2010


NASA is neither victim nor hero, but a Greek tragedy. It's exceptionalist thinking like "We are the ONLY ones who can do what we do" that leads to situations like where U.S. space program now finds itself.

I've enjoyed my time working on the shuttle a whole lot, but every time I go to work it feels absurd to have my primary focus be leaning how to use this decades-old technology while all around me coworkers are tapping away at shiny iPhones and EVOs. Being a government project that has accomplished pretty impressive things shouldn't exempt technology from product cycles.
posted by w00bliette at 2:49 PM on August 4, 2010


« Older I am fully occupied writing Essays for the broadsh...  |  MAC Cosmetics and Rodarte part... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments