Goodbye to the Space Shuttle
The U.S. Space Shuttle program will come to a close this year, a little more than 30 years after its inaugural flight, with the last flight scheduled for late June. Always a technological marvel and never an economic one, the shuttle reminds us of another beautiful white bird now seen only in museums, the Concorde. Some analysts ask why the United States never developed a successor reusable space plane, just as some ask why, the Concorde excepted, commercial aviation has remained stuck at the roughly 500- to 600-knot cruising airspeed (1,000 kilometers per hour), 35,000-foot (21,000-meter) altitude performance parameters in the 50-odd years since the Boeing 707 entered service.
The two cases, while superficially similar, could not be more different. Civil airliners are a mature technology that has become incredibly reliable. Airliners are like elevators, which haul millions of people hundreds of feet up in the air and down again with virtually no fatalities. The space shuttle, despite its prosaic official STS (Space Transportation System) title and promise of economic efficiency, reusability and rapid turnaround, remained an experimental spacecraft. The orbiters were finicky to refurbish between flights, particularly the notorious heat-ablating tiles on the lower fuselage, wings and nose; uneconomic, and always potentially deadly, with one take-off and one re-entry accident destroying two of the five operational shuttles and costing the lives of their crew in just over 130 flights. None of that denigrates the science and space operational knowledge and heritage gained during the shuttle years, highlighted by missions such as the repair of the Hubble telescope and the building of the International Space Station. But the fact remains that the program never delivered on the basis it was sold to its investors — the U.S. taxpayers.
Civil aviation has not advanced because the public accepts its operating parameters (New York to London or Paris takes six hours) and might not accept a new generation of aircraft that pushed the performance envelope but which might have a far higher rate of accidents and loss of life. Reusable space plane technology has not advanced because, in terms of what was promised, we did not really get it right the first time, and there is no certainty that the enormous investment required for a second-generation space shuttle would produce a better result. If economics and efficiencies had improved during the 30 years of operations, the argument for a second generation would be more easily made. But that is not the case. The tacit admission of that is why NASA’s cancelled — or partially cancelled — Constellation crew transport system visibly — even to a layman’s eyes — looked back to the Apollo program.
Apparently, this is not a time for grand gestures. The U.S. is spending $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, while always having enough cash on hand to bail out financial institutions and automakers at public expense, lest their bondholders actually find out that investments can be risky. At the same time, NASA has been forced to cut its flagship interplanetary space probe program for want of approximately $24 billion; its April announcement of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2) awards to four companies totaled less than $270 million, and those craft that are actually built will not be operational before mid-decade (some of the CCDev2 winners’ and runners-ups’ proposals also visibly hark back to the Apollo legacy). It is a dispiriting state of affairs, especially for anyone who believes that moral hazard and creative destruction are twin pillars of a healthy capitalist economic system.
When the Apollo program and its Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab follow-ons ended, the United States was without means of human access to space for a few years. But the space shuttle was in development, and at the time, it held the promise of a new generation of exploration and colonization of space. It did not work out completely as promised, but it was a heroic project, peopled by heroic flight crews and ground crews.
So goodbye to the Space Shuttle. It belonged to the tail-end of a more heroic age, and it is perhaps fitting that in this newer age, NASA has nothing to replace it, much less succeed it.
Owen D. Kurtin is a practicing attorney in New York City and a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.