Friday, July 8, 2011
From the stars to the mud
OK, as we all know, the last Space Shuttle zipped off into space today. Fare thee well, Atlantis. Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't have named it after a doomed civilization.
John Logsdon has an interesting take on the Space Shuttle program in the current MIT Technology Review:
Space Shuttle boondoggle.
The money quote: "The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon's final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice."
I've consistently said that the Space Shuttle was a Rube Goldberg compromise on Werner Von Braun's concept of a reusable space plane.
To me, the official history of the space program tends to leave out an obvious fact: the X-Plane series was the embryonic beginning of a true space plane. The United State bypassed it in favor of a "space capsule" on top of disposable, staged booster rockets. The only rationale for this idiotic technology was the ridiculously expensive publicity stunt known as "the Space Race."
We got to the moon -- and Americans got bored with the space program and didn't want to fund it at the same level. Nixon's backing of the half-ass Space Shuttle design was a reflection of that lack of commitment.
We touched the stars, and crawled back into our self-absorption.
Sad, ain't it?