Abolish Shuttle...and NASA

I will take a radical approach to the problems with Shuttle, NASA, and the space program. That approach is: kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out.

Very few will, I think, disagree with the contention that Shuttle, as presently constituted, is an overpriced, overrated, obsolete piece of junk. Everyone from Nixon to Carter (and their minions) demanded new and increased capabilities in it, whilst simultaneously cutting R&D budgets. We might view in it the same light as a dancing bear – the amazing thing not being how well the bear dances, but that it dances at all. Very well, I say; ground them. Put the remaining orbiters in the Smithsonian, either as valiant efforts or as bad examples. But let’s not even think about flying one again.

Now, Shuttle II (or XXII), SSTO, laser launch, ocean-launched Orion, or bloody-minded stone slabs activated by human sacrifices performed by druids might – almost certainly would – perform better than the current Shuttle design. We do not, however, have any of those. The principal reason that we do not is NASA. It has long since mutated from a goal-oriented organization into a sclerotic bureaucracy whose mission – never mind the nominal purpose for which it was created – is first to continue to exist, and second to expand to the limits of available funding. As is my wont, the solution that I offer is nasty, brutish, and quick, if not short: abolish NASA, fire everyone from the guys sweep the floors down to the administrator, and blacklist them to prevent them from ever working for the U.S. government again. Period. End of sentence.

(As a side issue, I have no problem with simultaneously creating some institution – call it a Job Court – to decide if the blacklist of a specific individual is unjustified and should be lifted. OTOH, if the bill that abolishes NASA also mandates the death penalty for anyone who even suggests such a thing, I’d still accept it. We established some little while ago that “I was just following orders!” is not an acceptable defense.)

As for the space program as a whole: it doesn’t exist. We do have a job-guarantee program for NASA bureaucrats and aerospace contractors; the space program, however, was hijacked by Kennedy to provide a meaningless Cold War propaganda spectacle, further perverted by Johnson, and killed by Nixon (who had the good sense or good luck to realize that an Apollo-style program to land on Mars was not the way to proceed, although to his infinite discredit – in this area – he accepted Shuttle).

So, how do we create a space program? We will start by creating a new agency (it’s OK; remember that we’ve already abolished NASA. No new agencies until we do, however). Let us call it, for the sake of discussion, the American Space Technology Research Agency, or ASTRA.

ASTRA will be divided into two branches. One branch will be the Goal Certification Bureau. This will be a very simple thing. Something like Jerry Pournelle’s prize program will be adopted. A concrete goal will be announced – putting eight people simultaneously on the Moon, keeping them there a month, and bringing them to the Earth alive, let us say – a prize will be given for say – again, let us say, ten billion dollars, tax free – and the GCB will do nothing but decide if the goal is met. No interim funding, no “give us a billion dollars up front and we’ll try”. Some second and lower prizes might be established, to allay fears of being a day late and a dollar short in achieving the goal, but no awards for partial completion of a goal.

The second branch will be the Experimental Projects Program. In each project, the XPP will design a spacecraft – which could be anything from a flying stovepipe to a generation ship for interstellar colonization – and test it to destruction. It will then take all that the data on the mistakes and shortcomings in the design and construction, and build a second one. That one will be tested up to, but not beyond, its limits. (We should know its limits. If not, we didn’t learn enough from destroying the first one, and everyone involved in designing the second one should be hanged.) If the Smithsonian wants a clean machine for display, we can build a third one, fly it once, and hand it over as a “working craft”.

And that’s the end. The technology goes in the “open file”. No patents, no trademarks, no six-month battle with the FOIA and a team of lawyers, ideally not even a lock on the filing cabinet. Anyone, American or not, can have all the information. They shouldn’t even have to ask for it in detail; just “Gimme what you have on the X-35 project” should be enough.

(It will be objected – and rightfully so – that there are some projects which should be kept classified. Excellent; let the Air Force – or the Space Force, if we really think one is needed – dip into the “open file”, take what it needs, and develop its orbital interceptor in total secrecy. But the Air Force should do it, not ASTRA.)

Incidentally, no real X project has been flown in decades. The best thing to do, in my view, is to openly acknowledge the subversion of the space program by Kennedy, and destroy all the technical data gained since 1960. Burn the papers, microfilms, and magtapes; hire some husky illiterates with sledges to smash the hard drives. Level the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and the Johnson Space Center in Houston (sowing the ground with salt would be going a little too far; besides, it would be a waste of perfectly good salt). We’ve already fired and blacklisted everyone who works for NASA now, so no one at ASTRA can draw on direct knowledge of prior state of the art). The “human factors” data – physiological, psychological, motivational – can be kept; it might not be exactly what we would like, but it’s there, and at worst will be harmless.

And that’s it. Realistically, ASTRA will have to have at least five people in it; the administrator, the deputy administrators of the GCP and the XPP, and one tech for each to do the grunt work (the administrators aren’t – or shouldn’t – be useless; they’re there to make sure that funds don’t get diverted to Apollo: The Next Generation or the First Church of Gaia, and to terminate – perhaps with extreme prejudice – anyone who tries).

Any request for more than five people should be viewed with suspicion. The goal is not empire building, or even to implement SDI or explore Mars via robot (the funding for that can come from the NSF). The goal is to research and provide rewards for developing the technology needed for space programs – not to develop that technology, government bureaucracies are terrible at developing technology – but merely to provide the incentives for doing so.

There will not be, and shouldn’t be, a space program. There will be dozens of space programs – the Air Force’s, the telecommunications corporations’, the people who think that they know how build private launch systems (and they may be right), and the hucksters selling tickets for weekend tourist excursions. Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend. Let those who are right be allowed to demonstrate it.

*per ardua ad astra *

My God. A whopping 17 Americans have died in spacecraft related accidents and you’re ready to toss the whole thing for something completely unproven, with a new organization that inevitably will be just as bad as you seem to think NASA is? Why reinvent the wheel every few years? What we have works.

Howsabout we just learn from this, go ahead with our plans, and recognize that not everything can go right 100% of the time?

No, I was ready to toss Shuttle before Enterprise was rolled out.

And, yes, I’m ready to try something completely unproven – like Shuttle was in 1975, or jet engines were in 1935, or drilling for petroleum was in 1850.

In what sense? Yes, we can get Shuttle to orbit, and back – at a cost of a billion dollars per flight, and at the rate of seven or eight flights a year. Which was the rate before we lost a quarter of the fleet.

We’re going to build a space program – an honest-to-Heaven, we’re-going-to-get-some-return-on-our-investment, space program on that?

Oh, a lot of people have learned – that Shuttle is aging garbage.

How’s about we bite the bullet, admit that Kennedy did more to destroy the space program than Proxmire ever did, that nothing that we’ve done in the last three or four decades has any real value, and do the things that we should have done back in 1960?

Cause I don’t want to use vacuum tubes in my computer anymore?

i have a better idea, why don’t we just go right to the source of the problem?

let’s blow away the atmosphere!

then we won’t need 17k heat resistant plates to land. there will be no burning up of space ships upon re-entry, the lessened fluid resistance will allow us to take off with less force, AND we can get rid of all of those damn hurricanes, tornadoes, and los ninos.

now THAT would be progress.

But… but… but…

My god, I’m speechless.

Kennedy destroyed the space program?

He inherited a program that was going nowhere fast and challenged the country to get a man to the moon in ten years.

How can that, by ANY stretch of the imagination, be considered destruction?

In any event, he was only President for less than three years. He didn’t even have enough time to get the plumbing changed in the White House. His influence on the space program couldn’t have been that great beyond his support for it.

Is this a “asking for a pony so you can get a hamster” technique? After reading all that I’m almost ready to concede that the Shuttle program itself should be cancelled.

But to cancel the Shuttle program now would mean the end of the current ISS project, which I’m not ready to see. Certainly there should be more emphasis on developing a Shuttle replacement in the meantime, but it’s not as you make it sound. If SSTO is so easy, why hasn’t Russia or Europe already developed it?

I’m not ready to “toss the whole thing,” but two catastrophic accidents resulting in complete destruction and total loss of the crew, out of 113 flights, is ridiculous. Imagine if that same safety record were applied to airline flights.

That’s the problem here; with 113 flights, we have enough data that the statistics have at least some validity, and a 1.77% catastrophic failure and fatality rate is ridiculous. Space flight is complex, difficult and dangerous, but it should be safer than playing stickball on an interstate highway. And right now, it is not.

The solution is probably more money, not less; new shuttle designs, new procurement programs, whatever. But the current shuttle program is busted, and it is probably not fixable.
The fix to the manned space program may involve gutting NASA of its current personnel; I don’t know. I do know that something needs to be done.

Honestly, the best result would be that there was sabotage; any other answer means that we fucked up badly.


Bush wants to go to war against Iraq.

Such a decision means people will die!

Why not get rid of war. After all, several tens of millions of Americans might have lived to a ripe old age had we not listened to politicians, bureaucrats and generals the past 200 years.

Sua, in the early stages of flight development, people were dying left and right.

I’d verture to say that doing something as risky as going to space on a comparatively untested and little used vehicle such as the space shuttle carries more risks, since the pioneers of flight didn’t have to worry about reentry.

Air travel has been refined through many millions of flights, and yet we still find things we never knew before. The shuttles have been on only 113 flights. That’s barely enough testing to get a stress analysis. Do you think that the shuttle is as safe or as good as what we could do? Of course not. But that takes testing, commitment, and sacrifice. 17 men and women have done that, and many hundreds of others are lining up for their shot at it. People willing to sacrifice to make it safe for you and me to travel through space.

They say that you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. I submit that in this case it’s very close to the truth. This is a baby step, and even if we get the “perfect” spacecraft people will die. But we shouldn’t quit with the shuttle on that basis alone. We should quit when something legitimately better comes along.

OK, let’s not say “destroyed”. Let’s say “seduced and corrupted like a pimp addicting a twelve-year-old so that she’ll ‘cooperate’ as a thirty-trick-a-day flat-backer”. That’s probably a better description.

Now, of course, in its early days NASA was NACA, so a trivial Google search won’t show it.

I daresay that everyone now in the Air Force is too young to remember the Bell X-1 – the first plane to go supersonic. Or the X-4 Stiletto – the first plane to take off, go supersonic, and land again capable of re-use. Or the X-15 – the prototype of a reusable, not rebuildable spaceplane.

Of course, that’s just supersonic, atmospheric flight. We evolved with the ability to do that – at least, some kids who think that Reagan is the demiurge and created the world ab initio in 1981 seem to believe.

What have we gotten since then? Apollo (and its predecessor programs). We got some cool pictures, what could have been boffo publicity if NASA wasn’t in charge of making the spectacular seem dull, several boxes of rocks, a raft of data for the pure and applied sciences, and propaganda whose value was immediately cancelled in the minds of everyone to the left of Scoop Jackson when the Soviets lied about trying to get to the Moon and the editorial board of the New York Times pretended that they were telling the truth?

And what should the sequel should have been? Never mind that we know it was nothing – we threw away (and in some cases deliberately destroyed) the technology used, and less than a decade later we had Carter’s tame watermelons solemnly assuring us that it would take more than a decade to recreate it. What would it have been if some alternate Nixon had said, “Great job on Apollo, guys; now take it and run with it, here’s a blank check.” Why did we start over with Shuttle? (Remember, the world and even the space program existed back in those Neolithic times.)

The shuttle employs the state of the art method to enter into and return from space. Without positing some other type of propulsion device or reentry device it would not make sense to scrap the shuttle. Sure there could be improvements, updated computer systems and the like, but you will still be left with something that looks like the shuttle. Unless of course you believe in the disk shaped UFOs, anti-gravity warp drive nonsense. Hey maybe Akatsukami could clue us in on how it is done on his planet.:wink:

So what about the space elevator? :smiley:

or a nice big escalator to nowhere?

This is a statement of such astounding non-logic that I’m not entirely convinced you aren’t joking. Next you’ll say:

“Why, just last week there was a catastrophic airliner crash in which 160 people died. Can you imagine 160 people dying in a bicycle accident? Imagine is that level of carnage were applied to bicycles!”

The reason shuttle flights are more dangerous than airline flights is that getting into orbit and back again is really, really dangerous. This comes as a surprise to nobody at NASA. There’s simply no way around it at present; spaceflight’s dangerous.

Well, all the more reason to invest more money into it.

Maybe we agree after all.

NASA’s budget, in the grand scheme of things, really isn’t very big. An increase sufficient to begin development of new launch vehicles is desperately needed.

So in 1975, you thought the Shuttle was a bad idea, but now, you’re willing to embrace something new, like, say, the shuttle?

That’d be two opposite opinions. Pick one, please.

DaddyMack said:

I’m nowhere near an expert on this, but might it be that it’s considered the state of the art method because it’s the only one NASA seems willing to use?

I like the idea of taking space access out of the hands of bureaucrats and turning it over to private enterprise. If there might be a relatively cheaper, safer and more efficient way than the shuttle to consistently achieve escape velocity, and make money doing it, wouldn’t it make sense to encourage a multi-headed approach to finding that way?

Well, it’s not done by gathering together the biggest pile of high explosive that we can, putting six people on top of it, and then setting that sucker off.

Of course, since Shuttles enthusiasts (that is, enemies of routine access to space for human beings) have been careful to throttle new developments in technology since the '80s, and even before (you have heard of NERVA? of the X-33? of SSX?), the Shuttle can be said to be “state of the art” – just as, if there had been successful attempts to burke PC development since then, the TRS-80 would be “state of the art”.

However, since you (and others) have been blinded by the whoop-de-do over a twenty-year old failure (yes, failure – Shuttle has never achieved the goal of affordable, routine access to space that was claimed for it), allow me to enlight you as to how it might be done. I shall eschew such exotica as laser launch systems, since we’d have to research such technologies, and research, of course, is a gamble – unlike proven systems such as firecrackers.

The principle problem, of course, is cost. Anti-manned-space advocates make a big thing out of reusability, but in fact it is irrelevant. A reusable system that is too expensive to fly is useless; a throwaway system that was as cheap as a soda can would be desirable even thought it were throwaway.

(The Shuttle, of course, is not reusable; it’s rebuildable. Only the basic airframe is used again; the rest of Shuttle is thrown away, either before or after its flight, and replaced. This is why it costs a billion dollars to fly one.)

(My views of space programs control my outlook on this discussion, of course. I feel that exploration should lead to exploitation, with the rewards not necessarily reaped by the organization (i.e., NASA) that put up the initial funding, and not necessarily immediate. If you think that a space program is solely for national prestige, or for promoting the brotherhood of man, or completely useless with the money better going to harebrained social schemes, you will of course disagree with me.)

Given no real advances in technology, our new spacecraft will pretty much have to be VTVL (Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing). We must also depend purely on chemical fuels; Orion is right out on that consideration, if no other (and there are plenty of others). NERVA, of course, was never intended to be gound launched.

Liquid hydrogen (LH), as used in Apollo, is tricky and dangerous stuff to handle (it’s amazing how many people reject new technologies, and at the same time are oblivious to the much greater dangers of the current ones). I’ll take a step back and use an unsaturated, low-molecular-weight hydrocarbon such as LNG or propane as fuel. Liquid oxygen (LOX) is really the only suitable oxidizer; fortunately, the physical and chemical properties of LOX are well known.

DC-X was a test version of such a craft (I’m sure that NASA’s destroying it on its first flight under their control was due to their hopeless and well-documented incompetence, not to any malice on their part). Next should be Shuttle V2.0; nothing to do with the current piece of overly complex and underperforming junk, of course. Rather, a single-stage, VTVL craft of 300 tons gross (fueled) weight (it should really be called Shuttle V0.2, but since we already have a Shuttle…).

Shuttle V2.0 will have an empty weight of about 30 tons; a mass ratio of about 10 is both necessary with chemical fuels, and about the most that we can construct without new technologies. It may have a negative payload; that is, it won’t even reach orbit. Of course, in the current NASA world where everything works as expected the first time (is that the planet that you’re from, DaddyMack?), this would be fatal. In the real world, of course, we’ll progress to Shuttle V2.1, with holes bored in the structure to lighten it without a concommitant decrease in strength.