History of (Failed) Shuttle Replacements
February 2, 2003 9:30 AM   Subscribe

So, why hasn't the Shuttle been replaced? Because it hasn't been easy. In the late 80's and early '90s, the cold-war-fantasy-cum-shuttle-replacement was the X-30 National Aerospace Plane (NASP) that was supposed to take off and land like a plane flying on super-fast Scramjet engines that, alas, were never really successful... In the late '90s, the New Economy, space-exploration-on-VC-money shuttle replacement was the X-33 VentureStar program which was eventually cancelled, after a long and turbulent history. The X-33/VentureStar was one of the most technologically daring machines ever built --albeit too daring. I cannot mention the X-33 without mentioning the ingenious-but-untested linear aerospike engine that was going to take it to orbit. If the US is now (again) considering a Shuttle replacement, maybe the Delta Clipper is worth a second look. The DC-X was a competitor for the X-33 program that was eventually scrapped, for technological and other reasons. At least the Russians and Europeans liked it so much better than the other New Shuttle options that they copied it.
posted by costas (35 comments total)
Sorry for the long post, but the history is long itself. On bit more current news, I will have to second this Time article on scrapping the Shuttle. The STS program is no more than pork, plain and simple, an indirect subsidy of Boeing et al.

Disclaimers: I was an aero engineer back in '96 when the X-33 was being decided and a friend worked on the X-33/VentureStar at the Skunkworks. I was and am biased for the X-33 on the ground of its sheer ballsiness and combination of exotic technologies (monocoque design, large composite structures, lifting-body, linear aerospike engines). Of course, these exotic and untried technologies were what killed it (mostly the composite fuel tanks, but the aerospike didn't help). The DC-X was more practical on the hardware side but it did over-rely on software. It seems that the pilots and ex-pilots (that always make the decisions when it comes to new air- and spacecraft) preferred new engines and a new structure and a new wing-type to new software. To this (now) software consultant that does make a weird kind of sense...
posted by costas at 9:41 AM on February 2, 2003

Off topic...did anyone archive or screen shot the Washington Post article on the safe landing of the shuttle??
posted by CrazyJub at 9:48 AM on February 2, 2003

I'm with you on the Time article, costas. Too bad the networks will never touch it.

By the way, don't miss the latest lick in the ongoing blow job Peggy Noonan has been giving our Republican presidents. She's fuzzily channeling Anna Quinlen, and tosses in (1) god , (2) simplistic bible-verse-hero mentality, and (3) Reagan worship, all at the same time. I'm only surprised there's no mention of abortion.
posted by troybob at 9:53 AM on February 2, 2003

CrazyJub -- two points: it was an AP article that the WaPo picked up. The WaPo didn't originate it. And, it didn't refer to the safe landing of the shuttle. AP moved it at 8:28am and it was talking about how the astros were looking forward to landing, described the landing preps in Florida, and said that the deorbit burn had happened.
posted by Vidiot at 9:54 AM on February 2, 2003

great post. thanx for the info.
posted by suprfli at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2003

Good post, costas, I'd been thinking of putting something like this up myself.

Barring a breakthrough on the space elevator front, my own preference would be to resurrect the DC-XA. That was a project that really could have worked, if it hadn't been handed off to NASA. I don't really think it over-relied on software -- the software worked fine, as the successful horizontal translation flight and demonstration of the "turnaround" maneuver demonstrated. If it had 5 landing legs rather than 4, it wouldn't have fallen over as it did when one of them failed.

Then again, the private sector may yet come through. XCOR Aerospace is building up a successful series of tests of its rocket engines on an airplane, hopes to create a sub-orbital space tourism ship in the near future, and could well come up with a manned orbiter in time if things work out. There's also the X-prize competition, which includes John Carmack's as a contestant (among many others).

posted by Zonker at 10:06 AM on February 2, 2003

Doh, I broke that last link while previewing. It was supposed to say "John Carmack's Armadillo Aerospace."
posted by Zonker at 10:09 AM on February 2, 2003

Zonker: I agree on the DC-X. At the time, it was obvious that Lockheed was going to get X-33: Lockheed was running low on pork projects, and the then-ailing, now-part-of-Boeing McDonnel Douglas didn't seem like it could pull off DC-X.

With the benefit of hindsight, a few lost billion and the wisdom of age, I do now think that the DC-X would have been the better choice. McD got a 1/3 prototype working in almost no time, their craft could scale up, it could have actually supported second stage rockets for high-energy payloads (read the Russian paper, it's a good comparison of the different SSTO approaches) and, most importantly after the two STS tragedies, it could fail-safe better than any other SSTO. The DC-X could abort take-offs, could survive engine shut-offs, and it could re-enter like an ole Apollo capsule (with parachutes) if need-be.
posted by costas at 10:19 AM on February 2, 2003

Adding some context for the uninitiated:

There are lots of explanations for this juddering history; the simplest is that going to space is complicated, and requires many years of focus on simplified goals to achieve, focus that is difficult in our political process. Kennedy's goal of reaching the moon may only have been reached because LBJ funded it as his legacy; it's not clear that JFK himself, had he survived, would have done his own idea so proud.

Shuttle, on the other hand, was rent from the beginning by multiple sets of goals. NASA wanted a reusable way to get astronauts into space, but their vision was a smaller space plane. USAF wanted a way to place -- and take down -- spy satellites (perhaps even those put up by others; it was the Cold War), and that required more cargo space (a KH-* spysat is about the same size as Hubble, which is no coincidence) and a delta wing configuration for greater "crossrange" (sideways) movement, in case during a polar orbit re-entry they were likely to come down in Communist territory. The original idea of the Orbiter, even given these differing goals, was for much more frequent flights and much lower costs. When the created object fell short, the fixed costs (launch facilities, vehicle assembly buildings, tracking centers, etc.) raised the overall cost of each flight to astronomical levels. To guarantee a flight rate NASA dropped much unmanned launch capability and forced commercial satellites to take Shuttle up. Then Challenger happened, and both key jobs -- civilian satellite launch and recovery, and all defense satellite and surveillance -- were taken away. The space station was then authorized, from a cynical point of view, simply to give this expensive program something to do. Meanwhile, we went through generation after generation of next-generation-shuttle programs that all failed to get anywhere, largely because keeping shuttle itself going is so damned expensive.

For years, many critics in the aerospace world have insisted that an essentially pork-barrel program like Shuttle is never going to get us a cheap, easy, fast (pick any two) way into space. They suggest instead that private enterprise, with its cost controls and competition, will produce an affordable orbit capability (at least, in the beginning, unmanned) much more quickly. For a brief window in the 1990s, it looked like this might happen, as the communications revolution combined with a venture capital boom meant satellite constellations like Iridium would fund a launch industry, and VC innovators like Rotary Rocket were riding high. Then came the Iridium collapse, and the investors fled, and this all came to an abrupt end.

For myself, I lean toward the privatization critics, though I don't think we need to end human spaceflight through NASA. Somehow, we need to get a robust mix of vehicles: a heavy launch capability to orbit, for space station parts; a reusable space plane for personnel transfers; an orbital transfer vehicle to move stuff up, down, and around; maybe a smaller cargo craft like the Russian Progress. The trouble is, I can't see anything ready before 2020, so Shuttle has to keep flying until then; and this accident raises concerns -- which aren't themselves new, even -- about how much longer these vehicles can safely be used. As one critic notes, they were designed for 100 flights, but we have no baseline data to say that they certified for that amount of abuse. Launch and re-entry are both rough manhandlers of spacecraft. Thus even program cheerleaders like me knew, deep down, there would be another accident during the program's lifetime.
posted by dhartung at 10:30 AM on February 2, 2003

There are actually two problems. One is getting people into space, and the other is getting heavy junk into space.

Come up with a system that only has to move 10 people and their necessary survival equipment into space, and come up with a separate system that launches the tractors, cranes, and materials and supplies needed to work and develop life in earth orbit.

John McPhee wrote about Ted Taylor, who helped develop(with Freeman Dyson) Project Orion. Orion used nuclear explosions for a heavy lifting system that would launch literally thousands of tons into space.

Things carrying people should focus on carrying people, and not carrying materials and supplies.

The idea that you would have a single system that would be the launch, living quarters, and return system needs to be re-evaluated if the goal is to have a long term presence involving working and living in space.
posted by dglynn at 11:26 AM on February 2, 2003

Also, the shuttle works. Most of the time.

You can build any replacement craft you want, but you won't be able to guarantee that it won't just make a newer fireball.
posted by anser at 11:35 AM on February 2, 2003

troybob--as much as I share your distastte for her and her writing--Jesus Christ, she mentions Tom Clancy and Tim Lahaye?--latest lick in the ongoing blow job Peggy Noonan has been giving our Republican presidents is way, way over the top, off topic and a finger in the eye even for someone with as low an opinion of her as I.


The space shuttle that broke up today carried, for the first time ever, a Mideastern astronaut

Um, Peggy, did you know there was a Saudi Arabian astronaut?


Interesting post, costas
posted by y2karl at 12:23 PM on February 2, 2003

Also, the shuttle works. Most of the time.

I believe I heard it on BBC Tv news, so i'm afraid I can't cite a webpage, but they were saying that NASA had expected a failure rate as high as 1 crash in every 100 missions. They're currently on 2 for 150 (ish, I assume).

Yes, that's a statistically shit sample, because the next crash could happen on mission 400, but a 1 to 75 crash/success ration doesn't quite sound like 'the shuttle works'.

[before anyone says it, I know it's a dangerous field, paid risk takers, etc...]

I admit now that I know very little about the technologies listed above, but I have to say I've always loved ramjets and scramjets... only problem is that they are illegal in the UK - I'd assumed they were in the US too...
posted by twine42 at 12:41 PM on February 2, 2003

A good time to start fresh. Air frame fatigue, I believe will be the verdict, even if the tiles will be deemed the cause for this.I would bet that there will be no more shuttle launches!
posted by JohnR at 12:46 PM on February 2, 2003

Trying to find a concrete statistic for NASA's acceptable shuttle failure rates, I came across this article from 1986 detailing flight 61-C when Columbia came within 31 seconds of being launched with 4,000 gallons shy of enough fuel to make orbit.

Incidentally, the launch took place two weeks before the Challenger explosion. The irony here is that had this launch occured, it would have resulted in either a Trans-oceanic Abort Landing (TAL) in Rota, Spain, or an Abort Once Around (AOA), landing at Edwards. either one would have certainly meant a postponement of the Challenger flight until the processes and safeguards had been checked out.

How's that for random causality?
posted by kfury at 1:30 PM on February 2, 2003

Err, that's Kennedy, not Edwards... My bad.
posted by kfury at 1:41 PM on February 2, 2003

CrazyJub, I've got that article if ya need it, drop an email.
posted by mutagen at 1:53 PM on February 2, 2003

vidiot: the Washington Post may not have originated it, but they did indeed prematurely report a safe landing.

[mirrored thanks to craphound.com]
posted by basmati at 2:03 PM on February 2, 2003

Costas, good post.
posted by 111 at 2:38 PM on February 2, 2003

Time arguing corporate welfare kills. Wonders never cease.
posted by raaka at 2:38 PM on February 2, 2003

FYI, the Washington Monthly has reposed Easterbrook's original April 1980 article criticizing the shuttle's safety.
posted by pmurray63 at 2:55 PM on February 2, 2003

I guess we just read this differently. I read the article on CNN.com shortly after it was posted at 8:28 (and knowing the shuttle was scheduled to land half an hour or so), before NASA lost contact, and didn't think anything of it.
posted by Vidiot at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2003

I was wondering about this ever since hearing the Challenger was 25 years old. Would you fly on a 25 year old commercial plane? Not me.
posted by xammerboy at 3:22 PM on February 2, 2003

As Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in 1980, even before Columbia's first flight, the shuttle program was poorly conceived and executed. (To correct for inflation, multiply dollar amounts in the article by 2.5). Originally planned for 50 shuttle flights per year, the program has barely managed five. Of the original five shuttles, only three are left, one of which will be in drydock until 2004.

As dhartung pointed out, the International Space Station was started just as an excuse to keep the shuttle flying. Most of the "science" performed on the station is of the caliber of a grade school project -- let's see how spiders make webs in space, let's see how seeds sprout in space, let's see how baby mice are born in space, etc. Even if you were really interested in these results, you don't need people present to do them.

Most distinguished space scientists such as Carl Sagan consider the manned space program to be a waste of resources. With all respect to the astronauts, they are not explorers. An astronaut flying to the space station is the equivalent of the 100th person to climb Mt. Everest. Certainly a dangerous and difficult feat, but not particularly noteworthy and having little to do with the advancement of knowledge. Sure, manned exploration has a video game appeal and serves some romantic notions, but is not necessary for real science.

Real, exciting science was accomplished by the relatively cheap Mars lander, Venus probes, and outer planet flybys, all unmanned. The money wasted on the shuttle and space station could be used more fruitfully, for example, in research on the existence, now or formerly, of life on Mars. Success in nuclear fusion research could be the most significant and life-transforming discovery in history, yet is annually funded at less than the cost of a single shuttle flight. I would rather see the dollars devoted to more worthy scientific goals.
posted by JackFlash at 3:25 PM on February 2, 2003

xammerboy, you probably already have.
posted by mrbula at 4:16 PM on February 2, 2003

Would you fly on a 25 year old commercial plane? Not me.

I take it you don't do much flying. Southwest airline's 737-200's, for example, have an average age of 22 years.
posted by delmoi at 4:24 PM on February 2, 2003

posted by delmoi at 4:26 PM on February 2, 2003

Would you fly on a 25 year old commercial plane?

I don't know--would you fly on a 50 year old bomber?
posted by y2karl at 4:44 PM on February 2, 2003

Easterbrooke's article made me want to puke.

The big problem when you are dealing with "the unknown" is that it is EXPENSIVE. Granted, there may have been internal policy issues that need to be resolved. I agree as well that the shuttle needs a replacement.

The private sector arguments are valid as well - however, they are highly unlikeyl to pump the enormous amount of money required for R&D into the space program. Keep in mind that when the shuttle was being developed "from off the shelf components", practicality dictated that in reality, shuttle engineers needed to research and develop much of the technology they thought would be readily available.

That's why its called R&D and that's why it is costly in terms of money and bodies, sadly. We're dealing with an unperfected science that is highly intolerant of mistakes in a horrifically hostile environment.

We do need a better mix of launch vehicles and we do need heavy research into a shuttle replacement. More importantly, if you study the development of the shuttle program from roughly 1969 until today you will see a program plagued by budget cuts, bureaucratic nightmares, and political hacking left and right.

Unfortunately, rockets don't care about politics and budgets - they require good engineering and deep pockets to be done right.
posted by tgrundke at 5:14 PM on February 2, 2003

I was with the Time article up until the author said that escape capsules could have helped the shuttle astronauts.

Mach 18. 40 miles above earth. Shuttle begins breaking up just as you say "roger, buh.."

Yeah. Right.

Columbia had ejection seats early in its life, but they were removed because only half the crew could have used them anyway and they weighed too much.

I bet NASA would love to make a newer, better shuttle fleet. But their budget was just decreased by another 64 million dollars. No wonder they scrap programs to design smaller space planes.

According to the Columbia FAQ, much the equipment used to create the shuttles has disappeared, and the people who could recreate it dead or gone. It's time for a new shuttle program, but the removal of humans from space is an idea I cannot support. I believe that a key (not the only key, but a big one) to our development as a species is the ability to expand our horizons beyond a doomed planet.
posted by xyzzy at 5:35 PM on February 2, 2003

I have always looked at the space program as the embodiment of all that is truly good and honest about this country. I think that the engineers yesterday put it best, "We're Americans. That means when something breaks, we don't stop. We fix it. That's what we do."

NASA is today's Lewis & Clark and I believe firmly that the manned space program is vital to humanity as a whole. It represents and embodies our abilities, challenges, courage, and willingness to push boundaries.

Our nature as humans is to push our boundaries and expand. Though I'm not a big "Trek" fan, Roddenbury had it correct: Space *is* the final frontier and excites me to no end. I'd take the opportunity to go right this moment without further thought.
posted by tgrundke at 5:50 PM on February 2, 2003

According to the Columbia FAQ [...]

Where is this FAQ?
posted by webmutant at 6:42 PM on February 2, 2003

That Easterbrook article is absolutely excellent. And more than just a bit eery.
posted by Swifty at 7:05 PM on February 2, 2003

kfury: A 1995 probabilistic risk assessment study for NASA found an overall risk of about 1 in 145 for a shuttle flight. Prior to Challenger, NASA had never used a systematic approach to assessing the risks of a shuttle accident, and used a guesstimate of 1 in 10,000 -- while at the same time, the USAF estimated the loss of an orbiter during launch at 1 in less than 100. (A study of 2900 rocket launches by the US showed a failure of around 180, or some 1 in 25; a rate that has remained consistent across modern space-faring nations. New rocket systems such as the US's Titan IV or Europe's Ariane 5 have not proven significantly more reliable. Indeed, the shuttle retains the distinction of most reliable launch system ever.) After Challenger, a 1988 SAIC study determined that the pre-Challenger risk should have been considered 1 in 78, and the post-Challenger risk could be estimated at perhaps 1 in 250. The 1990s saw NASA invest in so-called Shuttle Upgrades, most of which were, especially in the earlier phases, geared specifically toward increasing safety. The goal on completion of this process was confidence of something closer to a 1 in 500 failure rate, though this would almost certainly require switching to liquid boosters (preferably smart enough to fly back and land themselves), and wouldn't be achieved until 2012 at the earliest. NASA 6 sigma study {PDF -- see esp. slides 10-11}.
posted by dhartung at 8:35 PM on February 2, 2003

dhartung, I believe the Saturn V were the most reliable systems ever developed, unless there is a system out there with a failure rate lower than 0%.
posted by dglynn at 10:32 PM on February 2, 2003

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