The Space Shuttle was an Expensive Boondoggle

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January 5th, 2017 at 9:15:58 AM permalink
Nareed
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
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The last numbers for the Shuttle program put the cost per launch, in 2010 dollars, at $1.6 billion on average.

I'm reminded of this, and other stats like 14 lives lost, two "accidents," and 9 flights per year max, when reading about SpaceX's plans to re-use Falcon IX first stages, in order to lower costs.

You may recall early missions were called STS-01 and such. That stood for Space Transportation System. And that hides a little-known fact. NASA, after Apollo, didn't propose a shuttle only. It proposed the STS, which would include a shuttle as main launcher, but also a space station, a trans-Lunar transfer ship, Lunar landers and orbiters, and more. The idea was to send constant missions to the Moon, set up bases there, exploit any resources, use the space station for refueling, etc. Eventually it would serve as a launch pad for missions to Mars, the Asteroids, etc.

The Nixon administration approved the Shuttle only.

Now, there's no way to tell if such an ambitious project would have succeeded. It's one thing to land people on the Moon and bring them back. It's quite another to run a constant presence there. Many people don't realize how thin the safety margins were for Apollo, or for that matter how thin they still are for many space missions, including the Shuttle. They make razor-thin margins seem as substantial as plate armor.

The Challenger disaster, terrible as it was, provided an opportunity to improve the Shuttle program. IMO, it was a mistake to build a replacement shuttle, Endeavour, rather than to carry on with the three remaining ones and launch a second-generation shuttle program, which would put the lessons learned thus far to use.

On the one hand, the shuttle had been active for 4 years or so when Challenger happened. On the other, the early manned programs lasted only a few years each. On the other hand, the shuttle program stayed as it was for over 2 decades, without follow-on designs or new developments.

Imagine if Boeing had done nothing after designing the 747, then 25 years later it discontinued the program and paid Airbus to sell them wide bodies to resell to US airlines.

We'll see how SpaceX does.
If Trump where half as smart as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as smart as he really is.
January 5th, 2017 at 10:42:10 AM permalink
Fleastiff
Member since: Oct 27, 2012
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Think of the old WWtwo Liberty Ships.
It was considered vital that we maintain the sea bridge between USA ports and Western UK ports.
Land based aircraft and US Coast Guard cutters supported the western edge of the bridge, UK forces supported the eastern edge of the brige.
The problem was the great vast middle span that was unsupported and full of uboats, surface raiders and the like.

There was a determination that instead of massive investment in major escort ships there would be minimal investment in what were to be disposable cargo ships. So the Liberty Ship was built to make ONE trip. The return voyage and any future voyages were simply viewed as "gravy". The mission was to keep churning out disposable ships so that sufficient cargo could get through even if some ships got torpedoes and some ships failed due to stress and strain that was beyond the minimal engineering standards that were involved.

It was a calculated risk that extreme cold could sink a Liberty Ship. It was a calculated risk and an utter surprize to Uboat captains that merely ONE torpedo could sink a Liberty Ship in a matter of minutes.

It was sort of the same thing with the Shuttle. It needed a full inspection and a complete repair after each and every mission. It was the equivalent of a road bridge that needed an engineering inspection and repair after each and every tractor-trailer that crossed it. It fit the mission profile though. It did its job.

Programs have a way of going forward on their own and not being reviewed. Just look at the launch in the unheard of temperatures and the O-ring debacle. All the stats were there but the presentation was 'mission oriented' and decisions were 'mission oriented'. There were massive payrolls involved, there were thousands of workers employed, there as Public Relations as a primary motivator. Money is stuffed into the giant funnel, not because of where that narrow end of the funnel is, but because the funnel is a very leaky one that lubricates thousands of people and funds their pensions and their retirement jobs.
January 5th, 2017 at 11:00:25 AM permalink
Wizard
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Quote: Nareed
The last numbers for the Shuttle program put the cost per launch, in 2010 dollars, at $1.6 billion on average.


Between that and the two lost shuttles, I think the whole program was way too expensive for what we got out of it. Personally, I would not be opposed to paying space contractors to do necessary government work like launching satellites and whatever else is necessary for commerce and defense. I would be willing to chip in towards BIG projects like settlements on the moon and a mission to Mars, but I no longer trust NASA to do it under a reasonable budget and time frame.
Knowledge is Good -- Emil Faber
January 5th, 2017 at 11:24:57 AM permalink
Nareed
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
Threads: 301
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Quote: Wizard
Between that and the two lost shuttles, I think the whole program was way too expensive for what we got out of it.


Once past the shock, I got very angry at the loss of both shuttles. It's not that both losses were preventable, it's that they were easily preventable. And that, in fact, lots of people tried to prevent them.

Quote:
I would be willing to chip in towards BIG projects like settlements on the moon and a mission to Mars, but I no longer trust NASA to do it under a reasonable budget and time frame.


After the retirement of the Shuttle was decided, NASA unveiled the Constellation program. Again, what survived was a portion. In the meantime, SpaceX, Boeing and others are developing crew modules and launchers. SpaceX has launched it, without people, several times to resupply the ISS.

BTW NASA's rocket engine philosophy is for few but massive engines, while the Soviets have preferred many but light engines. Each approach has its drawbacks. SpaceX seems to have charted a middle course, using nine engines in the Falcon 9 launcher's first stage (the name comes from the number of engines, not the number of models in the series). For comparison, the Saturn V used to launch the Apollo ships to the Moon used five huge engines. The Soviet N1 rocket meant for the same purpose (and never used successfully) had like 30 small engines.
If Trump where half as smart as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as smart as he really is.
January 5th, 2017 at 11:48:43 AM permalink
Ayecarumba
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
Threads: 78
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Quote: Wizard
Between that and the two lost shuttles, I think the whole program was way too expensive for what we got out of it. Personally, I would not be opposed to paying space contractors to do necessary government work like launching satellites and whatever else is necessary for commerce and defense. I would be willing to chip in towards BIG projects like settlements on the moon and a mission to Mars, but I no longer trust NASA to do it under a reasonable budget and time frame.


I think the basic question is how much is a human life worth? The over engineered design, constant inspections and inevitable delays demonstrate a value system where the lives of the crew and the public can only withstand a minuscule risk. This makes it incredibly expensive since the activity is conducted in an environment that is so unforgiving. Even small malfunctions are deadly.

Have you have seen "The Martian" where Matt Damon plays a stranded explorer on Mars? If that circumstance were to occur in the real world, would the USA commit the resources like they did in the film?
basically dismantling an entire colonization program in order to save one man? In the film NASA makes the decision to send an unmanned supply ship, and the heroic crew that left him behind choose to risk their own lives (and spend an additional year+ in space going back for him.)


I think so. That's who we are.

There is this cable series called "The Expanse" which takes place in a time where the colonization of space is still rough an risky, but it has reached a point where humans are born and raised in space and identify as "Earther", "Martian", or "Belter" (identifying as someone from the caste of people who live and work in the asteroid belt). The shuttle program is a step in this direction. I don't think it was a waste, since in the long run, we will move in that direction.

Should America have stood by while the ESA or the Russians led development, construction and operation of the "International" Space Station?

Why are we going to Mars and not to Venus? Venus is closer and size wise, more like Earth. What does Mars have to offer human life that Venus does not?
January 5th, 2017 at 12:07:50 PM permalink
Nareed
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
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Quote: Ayecarumba
I think so. That's who we are.


We would. The bureaucracy would not.

That's who they are.

But more importantly, that's what they actually did.

NASA didn't allow anyone to check Columbia for tile damage after its last launch, even though launch video made it clear debris had struck the orbiter. Columbia couldn't have reached the ISS (technical reasons), but a rescue mission was possible, if very risky. Without even checking whether one was needed, though, one was not even planned.


Quote:
Why are we going to Mars and not to Venus? Venus is closer and size wise, more like Earth. What does Mars have to offer human life that Venus does not?


Because atmospheric pressure on Venus is over 90 times that on Earth at sea level, equivalent to about nearly a kilometer under water. And the surface temperature is high enough to melt lead (over 400 C), hell, it's high enough to overcook meat (most ovens top out short of 250 C). Surviving on Venus would require very heavy armor and be possible for perhaps an hour or two. Probes sent there last under an hour before succumbing to the heat and pressure.

Mars, by contrast, has almost no atmospheric pressure, and very low temperatures (though they can get as high as 20 C, which is perfectly pleasant). the pressure differential to a human habitat would be under one atmosphere, or about what jet aircraft deal with every day. And withstanding cold is a lot easier than withstanding heat. Mars is about as warm as Antarctica, where people can live with relative ease. Probes sent to Mars last for years, typically a lot longer than their designed lifetime.
If Trump where half as smart as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as smart as he really is.
January 5th, 2017 at 12:48:26 PM permalink
Nareed
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
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Quote: Ayecarumba
I think the basic question is how much is a human life worth?


Literally priceless. You can't put a price on it.

With a few exceptions.


Quote:
The over engineered design, constant inspections and inevitable delays demonstrate a value system where the lives of the crew and the public can only withstand a minuscule risk. This makes it incredibly expensive since the activity is conducted in an environment that is so unforgiving. Even small malfunctions are deadly.


The safety margins on space missions are very thin. Consider Columbia was killed by a piece of foam insulation and,Challenger by a leaky rubber seal. Beyond that, though there is redundancy in many systems, you also have a series of very unforgiving maneuvers, where a small error translates in death. Apollo capsules returning from the Moon used Earth's atmosphere as a break. If they came in too high, they wouldn't slow down fast enough and be trapped in orbit, unable to come back down. if they came in too low, they'd slow down too quickly and be burned to a cinder on the descent. As it was, they came in so fast they required a heat shield and even so the air around them got so hot it turned to plasma (the reason why there was a communications cut while on re-entry; ionized plasma reflects radio waves); and the same was true of the Shuttle.

Take modern airliners. they have double and triple redundancies in most systems, plus a lot of emergency equipment like oxygen masks, escape slides, life jackets, etc. In most cases, a plane can spend its whole 2+ decade lifetime without requiring a redundant system or emergency equipment more than once or twice, or at all. How much cheaper would air travel be if we could lighten planes by removing all these things? Or things like being able to fly on a single engine? All commercial aircraft are over-powered in principle.

But then in case of malfunction or emergency, you'd be screwed.

Would you fly on a plane like that?
If Trump where half as smart as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as smart as he really is.
January 5th, 2017 at 1:08:13 PM permalink
Wizard
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Quote: Nareed
You can't put a price on it.


Yes you can and we do. Maybe we don't put an exact cost on a life but we trade lives for improvements in the lives of those who didn't die all the time. Like the decision whether or not to fight a war.

Suppose science found a way to create electricity at 10% the current price but it was a little dangerous and resulted in about 100 deaths per year over the whole country. Would you support it?
Knowledge is Good -- Emil Faber
January 5th, 2017 at 1:23:45 PM permalink
Nareed
Member since: Oct 24, 2012
Threads: 301
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Quote: Wizard
Suppose science found a way to create electricity at 10% the current price but it was a little dangerous and resulted in about 100 deaths per year over the whole country. Would you support it?


How many people die each year as a result of the generation and distribution of electricity?

Counter-question: Someone close to you is sick and will die soon. There is a treatment, which is 100% effective, but it's worth twice the amount you calculate their life is worth. You have access to that much money Do you spend it on the treatment?

BTW, did you know coal burning electricity plants produce a larger amount, as well as a more dangerous kind, of radioactive pollution than nuclear power plants? Only unlike nuclear plants who contain the waste, coal powered plants dump it in the atmosphere.
If Trump where half as smart as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as smart as he really is.
January 5th, 2017 at 1:32:56 PM permalink
Face
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I just watched a doc on Bat 21 Bravo, which was the "longest, largest, and most complex" search operation in Vietnam. "Bat 21" was Iceal Hambleton (sp?), an airman specializing in countermeasures, and a Really Big Deal as far as intelligence goes. It's a magnificent story, and one I would suggest reading or watching, but my point is found in the details. To get this ONE man out, they lost 5 aircraft, 11 airmen, and 3 more were captured.

Was it worth it?

There are many factors to consider, from the millions of dollars in manpower and equipment to the lives of his fellow airmen. But the decision, surprisingly to me, involved not one of these factors. In fact, it only involved one: Heart.

The AF could not afford the cost of morale. They needed all of their guys to know that they will NEVER be left behind. And because of this, every time another sortie went off, there was never a lack of volunteers.

I like that. And I think it might apply here. When people die in shuttle disasters, that's life. It's a machine, and machines break. But when people die because their country abandoned them, that is unforgivable sans a pre-flight declaration that you are Marco Solo if the SHTF.

Without clear, repeated, and full understanding that you will be abandoned, you go get your man.
Be bold and risk defeat, or be cautious and encourage it.
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