If you ever get to see one of the retired space shuttles up close, you will be struck by how rickety it looks. Just go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles or the Intrepid Museum in New York. Walking under the wings or by the cockpit's windows, you get the unmistakable impression that this incredible piece of engineering is, at best, sketchy. It is a miracle, and not in a good way. It is surprisingly tiny and appears cobbled together, with slightly deformed bulkheads, uneven rivets and burned tiles on its underside. In all, it seems custom-built and handmade and not nearly as sturdy as an airliner.
After seeing the actual shuttle, I was astonished that anyone in their right mind would ever ride in that thing—and even more so, considering that it was strapped to what amounted to a pair of pipe bombs. Yet, many astronauts—no doubt braver than I ever will be—did ride that jalopy into space. And quite a few died doing it.
Monday marks the 13th anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle's disintegration as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, killing its seven crew members. And last Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which exploded after launch, resulting in the death of its crew of seven, including a schoolteacher. As we commemorate these tragic NASA events, I would like to raise the unpopular and impolitic question of the failure of the space shuttle program.
The space shuttle failed because, contrary to the race to Moon, there was never any strong political will to make it a success. It was space, but on a budget. After their initial successes in space, the Soviets had been thoroughly beaten. The shuttle had nothing to prove on behalf of America's superiority, and therefore it proved nothing.
In America we take it as an article of faith that sending humans into space is necessary and beneficial. It is a matter of engineering prowess, but also self-image. It's what global superpowers do.
Human spaceflight is a very select club. On October 15, 2003, China became only the 3rd country, after the US and Russia/USSR, to independently send a human into orbit (air force pilot Yang Liwei, on Shenzou 5). The achievement delivered a potent political message at home and abroad: China now plays in the Big Leagues.
Ultimately that is the meaning of national space programs, from Russia's Sputnik and Mir space station, to America's Apollo Moon program and the Space Shuttle. The conquest of space is a political affirmation of power, a competition of might and daring between giants on the world's stage. Success in the space race is eminently political—and so is failure.
The Soviets put the first satellite into orbit in 1957, aiming to prove the technological superiority of Communism over the West. They did it again 4 years later when they put the first human into orbit, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (on April 12, 1961), and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6, June 16, 1963). A deeply humiliated America had to respond. JFK dared the country to not only catch up with the Reds but to beat them at their own game by putting humans on the Moon before the end of the decade. The Cold War heightened the stakes; space exploration became a race between competing political and economic systems.
We all know how that went: in the race to the Moon, America beat the Russians. (And no, sorry, the Moon landing was not a hoax.)
The thing was, once you've won what was arguably the hardest challenge in history, what do you do next? After the initial burst of enthusiasm and national pride, the American public grew increasingly indifferent to the conquest of space. By the early 70s people had moved on. As poet Gil Scot-Heron sang in "Whitey on the Moon," there were more pressing problems down here on Earth.
In that sense, the Space Shuttle program never stood a chance. It was the follow-up to an enormous victory and lacked the political urgency and idealism of Apollo's mad dash to the Moon. Beyond the mandate to send people into orbit cheaply, the Space Shuttle did not have a clearly defined purpose or an enemy to beat.
The shuttle's program suffered from an ill-defined mission and greatly diminished funding (compared to the Moon program). At its core the shuttle’s design was the bastard child of horse-trading, a compromise between NASA and the Office of Management and Budget. As the Columbia Accident Investigative Board stated in 2003, the shuttle was “an inherently vulnerable vehicle, the safe operation of which exceeded NASA’s organizational abilities.”
The report added: “The increased complexity of the Shuttle, designed to be all things to all people created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start. Designing a reusable spacecraft that is cost-effective is a daunting engineering challenge; doing so on a tightly constrained budget is even more difficult.”
In the case of Challenger, an O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster failed because of prolonged exposure to unexpected cold weather on the ground. The O-ring material became brittle and ruptured during the booster burn. Explosive gas destroyed the joint the O-ring was supposed to seal and escaped the body of the booster. The burning gases reached the external fuel tank, leading to its explosion. The ship itself broke apart due to aerodynamic forces—it basically plunged toward the ocean at the speed of sound. The shuttle was not designed to let the crew escape in case of an in-flight emergency. All those aboard died, including social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe. There are hints that the crew remained conscious until the shuttle hit the Atlantic Ocean.
The second accident in 2003 occurred after an errant piece of foam insulation from the external tank hit the left wing of the spacecraft upon launch. The ceramic heat-shielding tiles underneath the wing were damaged. They could not fulfill their primary function: protecting the shuttle from the friction of super-heated air during re-entry.
The shuttle does not just drop from orbit. In order to get back to the ground, it needs to gradually slow down. The spacecraft weaves and rolls into the atmosphere’s increasing air density, using it as an aerodynamic cushion. It's akin to pushing the brake on your car, but instead of pads, the shuttle uses the air. As in a car, however, the enormous kinetic energy of the vehicle dissipates as heat. Outside temperatures on the shuttle's body rise to several thousand degrees, so much so that the air changes into plasma, engulfing the orbiter in flames. In Columbia's case, these flames reached the inside structure of the left-wing because of the missing and damaged tiles. Shuttle Columbia was condemned to certain destruction from the moment it launched, and so were its occupants. A recovered video shows that they too survived well into their ship's disintegration.
Both tragedies revealed deep organizational failures at NASA, and above all a culture that prioritized mission completion over safety. In both cases, the issues with potentially defective parts had been known for a while but had not led to technical review nor to the postponement of the launches. Each time, NASA was under pressure to demonstrate success, to prove the reliability and worth of its manned space program. That pressure trickled down to the contractors, who swept under the rugs their own engineers' warning.
These fatal institutional problems stemmed in large part from the way the space shuttle was originally developed.
Back in 1971, in the waning days of the Moon program, the Nixon administration aimed to drastically scale back NASA’s budget. Those were different times, no longer the heady, optimistic 60s of John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." NASA wanted to go to Mars. Nixon had other, equally important priorities.
You have to remember that at the height of the Apollo era, NASA ate up almost 4.5% of the federal budget. If we were to spend that much money on space today, that would represent roughly $170 billion a year. This would be second only to the military in discretionary spending. Crazy.
Nixon and NASA settled on a shuttle with an external propulsion system, because it was cheaper and supposedly nimbler. The idea was to maintain America’s human access to low earth orbit without breaking the bank like Apollo had done. Unveiled in January 1972, the project called for a "space truck:" the shuttle, attached to a tank and solid rocket boosters (or SRBs). It was quite a come-down from the gigantism of the Moon vehicles. Monetary imperatives dictated the design, which was unconventional, unproven and unsafe. Even though the cheaper SRBs were essentially controlled bombs that could not be turned off, preserving the crew’s life with some form of escape system was never seriously explored, and certainly not built into the shuttle. The Nixon Administration assumed that NASA would eventually solve these engineering and safety challenges.
The fundamental problem was that SRBs are dangerous because they are not engines. Think of a rocket booster as an elongated powder keg with a nozzle at the bottom. Once you light it, you cannot stop its burn. You cannot throttle it down in case of malfunction. Yet SRBs were chosen because they offered a more economical solution to meet the program's budgetary constraints.
Similarly, the addition of an external fuel tank was a way to cut down on the Shuttle’s projected costs. It would maximize usable space inside the vehicle’s cargo hold for its payload, thereby making the economics of space flight more appealing on paper. You could launch more stuff all at once, instead of carrying fuel onboard to lift the vehicle into orbit.
An external tank is like a classic rocket, but without an engine. The liquid fuel must be maintained at very low temperatures (it is liquid gas, after all), and thus the tank requires copious insulation. In turn, light-weight foam insulation and ice from air condensation tend to shed during launch, due to the enormous mechanical stresses. This is not a major problem in regular rockets because they don't include vehicles carrying humans strapped to their sides, in close proximity to the launch debris and the engines. The payload sits atop the rocket, far above the exhaust.
But the space shuttle was no ordinary space vehicle. If anything, it was exceptionally bad. At launch, the shuttle's engines ignited right next to the chilled external tank and the two gigantic pipe bombs that were the boosters. Flying debris was a common occurrence and a known issue. Impacts on the underside of the shuttle happened on a regular basis, to the point where it seems remarkable that no fatal accident like Columbia's occurred prior to 2003.
In retrospect, the space shuttle was probably doomed from the start. No amount of work or maintenance could overcome its fundamental design flaws, which themselves were the result of political expediency. The shuttle's stated mission, to put people into orbit routinely and cheaply, proved self-defeating. It was unreliable and tremendously expensive. Two out of the five operational vehicles ever built were destroyed. The most missions flown by a single shuttle leveled at 39.
More importantly, the space shuttle utterly failed at lowering the cost of launching objects and people into orbit. In a review article in The American Scientist, Pr. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado at Boulder pegs the total cost per launch at 1.5 billion in 2008 dollars, or approximately $27,000 per pound. This was a direct consequence of the shuttle's poor design. While NASA engineers had hoped to turn the shuttle around in a little less than two weeks, in reality maintenance and repairs between launches took several months.
Now compare these costs to Elon Musk's SpaceX advertised prices of between $1,000 to $2,500 per pound for communication satellites, depending on the rocket. In September 2014, SpaceX and Boeing were awarded up to $6.4 billion for crewed space flights to the International Space Station. According to SpaceNews, a trade magazine, NASA based its awards on an estimated cost of $70 million per seat, the current going rate for an astronaut using Russia's Soyuz craft. These numbers alone are enough to grasp the magnitude of the Space Shuttle's failure.
Hence the question: what was the point of maintaining the program despite its inherent flaws and its cost in money and human life? Was it worth it?
As the Investigative Board noted, the shuttle "aimed to be all things to all people." This included serving as a showcase for America's technological dominance (but on a tight and constantly changing budget). This also included the unstated mission of keeping NASA in business after the end of the Apollo program. There were too many compromises and too many conflicting agendas: cut corners but keep giving America amazing spacewalk visuals. The space shuttle, having failed at reducing launch costs, became an end in itself. Pr. Pielke concludes that the International Space Station (initially called "Freedom") was built to give it somewhere to go.
From a purely scientific perspective, the jury is still out on the merits of putting humans into space. Apollo was an engineering triumph. It proved that we could indeed send people to the Moon and back on an accelerated schedule. But beyond pride in old glory, regoliths and velcro, it is not clear what Apollo really achieved. Same for the space shuttle: it gave us the Hubble telescope and contributed to the construction of the International Space Station. But per pound of payload launched into space, we got considerably more data out of automated probes such as Viking, Voyager and the Mars rovers.
Understanding the physiological effects of prolonged sojourns in orbit is certainly worthwhile, but only if we commit to use that knowledge to actually settle space—and that's a huge financial commitment. Don't forget that Apollo's 4.5% of the federal budget only bought us a few round-trip tickets to the Moon. Durable and sustainable space settlement will take way, way more money than that.
Long-term financial and political commitment was simply not there when the shuttle was conceived. Nor does it exist today. The 60s and the Cold War are over, quickly receding into history books. There is no space race anymore, and no enemy to beat. If you want to settle space for real it will take many more resources than we're currently willing to spare. And maybe that is not such a bad thing. After all, there does not seem to be a solid economic rationale for human space flight, especially given that robotic substitutes exist and are continually improving.
Personally, I tend to take a dim view of all the inspirational talk about human space exploration, from the real-life NASA PR machine and government contractors' fantasies, to Hollywood blockbusters (e.g. The Martian). To me the shuttle's failure highlights the paradox at the heart of space exploration. Scientific pursuits aside, the real value to society of launching stuff into space is realized here, on Earth and most of that value derives from unmanned, automated contraptions such as communication satellites, survey and mapping satellites, and GPS.
My enthusiasm for all things space cannot be questioned. I used to be a true believer. I used to take it for granted that we, as a species, needed to send people beyond our beautiful planet's orbit, to the Moon or to Mars. Somehow it was the logical and natural thing to do. I am not so convinced anymore.
Please don't flame me. I've just buried my childhood dreams.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.