UPDATED: The Really Dirty Truth About the Shuttle Program

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As president, I’ll make our space program a priority again by devoting the attention and resources needed to not only inspire the world with feats of exploration but also improve life here on Earth.”  Barack Obama, August, 2008

Don’t get me wrong, The Pink Flamingo is literally in mourning over the devastation NASA is facing.  I am so upset by it, that’s why you’ve not seen me write a word about it, in ages.  It hurts too much.  I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to the advocacy of human exploration of space.  This is like a knife in the heart.  I take it personally.  The other day my brother sent me an email, told him I just couldn’t talk about it.

It is time to be honest.  The shuttle program was a ticking time bomb, with vehicles who had many times over outlived their usefulness.  They were proverbially being held together with spit, bailing wire and duck tape.  I hate saying this, but it is true, except for the spit, bailing wire, and duck tape.

“...The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the project was doomed for a variety of reasons, including the challenging reusable spaceplane design and the huge range of often conflicting demands on the craft. Tellingly, the U.S. space program is abandoning spaceplanes and going back to Apollo-style rockets. The Russians have always relied on cheaper and more reliable disposable rockets; China plans to do the same. But hindsight is 20/20, and there may well be no way NASA could have known that the shuttle would flop back in the ‘70s when it was being planned and built, or possibly even while it was flying in the early ‘80s, before its bubble of innocence was pricked by disaster. But it would soon become clear to anyone that the shuttle program was deeply troubled—at least, to anyone who bothered to look….”

I was there for the third shuttle launch.  I was there for the first launch of Challenger.  I know all about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the shuttle program.  The incredibly good was that it managed to survive for so long, with only two catastrophic disasters.  The shuttles themselves were reaching the breaking point with age.  They were to have been retired years ago.

It had to be done.

Unfortunately….

The real problem here is that the shuttle program, which was designed not to be infinite, was due to be terminated years ago, and replaced by a more modern launch vehicle.

The ignorant wretches who do not know history don’t realize this nation has experienced many lows during the manned space program.  From July, 1975 until April 12, 1981 we were stuck here on planet Earth between programs.

This happens.

Space Politics

My heart is breaking. But, at least we have avoided an additional disaster. The other day, The Pink Flamingo was driving through White Sands Missile Range. I told my mother we would be lucky to get this mission over without another catastrophic disaster.

The best eulogy The Pink Flamingo has seen was written by R. Brian McCarty.

It is best to remember, when it is darkest, that there will be a dawn – I hope.

“...NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) $75 million to develop a revolutionary launch escape system that will enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. The Congressionally mandated award is part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative that started in 2009 to help private companies mature concepts and technologies for human spaceflight.

“This award will accelerate our efforts to develop the next-generation rockets and spacecraft for human transportation,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer. “With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.”

Musk said the flight-proven Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft represent the safest and fastest path to American crew transportation capability. With their historic successful flight on December 8th, 2010, many Falcon 9 and Dragon components that are needed to transport humans to low-Earth orbit have already been demonstrated in flight. Both vehicles were designed from the outset to fly people.

The announcement comes at a time when the United States has a critical need for American commercial human spaceflight. After the Space Shuttle retires in a few months, NASA will be totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) at a cost of more than $753 million a year – about $63 million per seat.

Musk said Dragon – designed to carry seven astronauts at a time to the space station at a cost of $20 million a seat – offers a far better deal for the U.S. taxpayer. While considerable flight testing remains, the critical-path technology Dragon needs for carrying humans to orbit is the launch escape system….”

SpaceX

There is a future. The question is how bright is it?

Spaceflight Now
Spaceflight Now

Just how advanced are these systems?

“...Blue Origin plans to advance its otherwise unnamed “Space Vehicle” by using the CCDev-2 funding to complete “key system trades,” work with NASA’s Ames Research Center to design the vehicle’s thermal protection system and conduct the reviews necessary to generate, in the words of its CCDev-2 proposal, “a baseline definition architecture and system requirements.”

Work on the four spacecraft with the CCDev-2 funding is just starting. Blue Origin and SpaceX have held “kickoff meetings” on spending the new federal money, according to a NASA progress report. Boeing completed a system definition review on May 19, NASA says, and Sierra Nevada met its systems requirements review milestone by delivering 10 documents June 1, including its human-rating plan.

By comparison, the MPCV that NASA started as the Orion crew exploration vehicle under Constellation is the most advanced crew carrier in the lineup. Lockheed Martin kept working on Orion after Obama called for cancellation of Constellation under appropriations language that prohibited NASA from terminating the program and its contracts.

According to NASA Program Manager Mark Geyer, Orion has cost the government $5 billion to date. With its portion of that money, Lockheed Martin has built and pressure-tested the initial Orion development vehicle and moved it from its fabrication facility at the Michoud plant in New Orleans to the Lockheed Martin spacecraft factory near Denver for acoustic and other ground tests. It has also developed a telescoped flight-test program using existing launch vehicles that it says could see the vehicle ready to carry crews of four to orbit in 2016. But NASA is slowing that plan to bring Orion development into sync with the heavy-lift SLS Congress has ordered NASA to build (AW&ST May 30, p. 30).

Thus, none of the planned human spacecraft has a human-rated launch vehicle to carry it to space. Boeing has yet to pick a launch vehicle for its CST-100, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin plan to use the Atlas V and SpaceX will use its Falcon 9.

Meanwhile, Congress and NASA continue to spar over how fast the agency is moving on the heavy-lift rocket ordered in the reauthorization act. Administrator Charles Bolden insists NASA cannot meet its 2016 congressional deadline, no matter how much money Congress appropriates for the task, while lawmakers like Hutchison and Nelson insist that the law is the law. Sen. John D. Rockefeller, 4th, (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, used a subpoena threat to pry loose permission for his staff to see preliminary versions of the SLS reference design, but only if they visited agency headquarters to do so.

That design, selected by Bolden on June 14 and forwarded to the White House for final approval, calls for a heavy-lift rocket that uses liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen for main- and upper-stage propulsion. Early versions of the rocket would use three surplus space shuttle main engines (SSME) each to power the main stage and the J-2X upper-stage engine started under Constellation for the upper stage. For added thrust during liftoff and early ascent, the vehicle would use a variant of the solid-fuel booster rockets that performed the same task for the space shuttle….”

If all of this sounds like Barack Obama has blown it, he has.  He had not earthly idea what he is doing.  President Screw-Up Strikes Again!

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