[LINK] The Shuttle disaster

David Lochrin dlochrin@dot.net.au
Fri, 07 Feb 2003 13:13:28 +1100

   A friend emailed this article on the shuttle disaster which was published in the New York Times.  Strictly speaking it's off-topic, but I thought it was a useful addendum to recent discussion of the subject in this forum.  There are many lessons in managing technology still to be learnt, I fear, especially with regard to the nexus between Engineering and Management / Politics / Sales.

David Lochrin

A Failed Mission

February 4, 2003

Some commentators have suggested that the Columbia disaster
is more than a setback - that it marks the end of the whole
space shuttle program. Let's hope they're right. 

I say this with regret. Like millions of other Americans, I
dream of a day when humanity expands beyond Earth, and I'm
still a sucker for well-told space travel stories - I was
furious when Fox canceled "Firefly." I also understand that
many people feel we shouldn't retreat in the face of
adversity. But the shuttle program didn't suddenly go wrong
last weekend; in terms of its original mission, it was a
failure from the get-go. Indeed, manned space flight in
general has turned out to be a bust. 

The key word here is "manned." Space flight has been a huge
boon to mankind. It has advanced the cause of science: for
example, cosmology, and with it our understanding of basic
physics, has made huge strides through space-based
observation. Space flight has also done a lot to improve
life here on Earth, as space-based systems help us track
storms, communicate with one another, even find out where
we are. This column traveled 45,000 miles on its way to The
New York Times: I access the Internet via satellite. 

Yet almost all the payoff from space travel, scientific and
practical, has come from unmanned vehicles and satellites.
Yes, astronauts fitted the Hubble telescope with new
eyeglasses; but that aside, we have basically sent people
into space to show that we can. In the 1960's, manned space
travel was an extension of the cold war. After the Soviet
Union dropped out of the space race, we stopped visiting
the moon. But why do we still send people into orbit? 

In space, you see, people are a nuisance. They're heavy;
they need to breathe; trickiest of all, as we have so
tragically learned, they need to get back to Earth. 

One result is that manned space travel is extremely
expensive. The space shuttle was supposed to bring those
costs down, by making the vehicles reusable - hence the
deliberately unglamorous name, suggesting a utilitarian bus
that takes astronauts back and forth. But the shuttle never
delivered significant cost savings - nor could it really
have been expected to. Manned space travel will remain
prohibitively expensive until there is a breakthrough in
propulsion - until chemical rockets are replaced with
something better. 

And even then, will there be any reason to send people,
rather than our ever more sophisticated machines, into

I had an epiphany a few months ago while reading George
Dyson's "Project Orion," which tells the true story of
America's efforts to build a nuclear-powered spacecraft.
The project was eventually canceled, in part because the
proposed propulsion system - a series of small nuclear
explosions - would have run afoul of the test-ban treaty.
But if the project had proceeded, manned spacecraft might
have visited much of the solar system by now. 

Faced with the thought that manned space travel - the real
thing, not the show NASA puts on to keep the public
entertained - could already have happened if history had
played out a bit differently, I was forced to confront my
youthful dreams of space flight with the question, So what?
I found myself trying to think of wonderful things people
might have done in space these past 30 years - and came up
blank. Scientific observation? Machines can do that. Mining
the asteroids? A dubious idea - but even if it makes sense,
machines can do that too. (A parallel: Remember all those
predictions of undersea cities? Sure enough, we now extract
lots of valuable resources from the ocean floor - but
nobody wants to live there, or even visit in person.) 

The sad truth is that for many years NASA has struggled to
invent reasons to put people into space - sort of the way
the Bush administration struggles to invent reasons to . .
. but let's not get into that today. It's an open secret
that the only real purpose of the International Space
Station is to give us a reason to keep flying space

Does that mean people should never again go into space? Of
course not. Technology marches on: someday we will have a
cost-effective way to get people into orbit and back again.
At that point it will be worth rethinking the uses of
space. I'm not giving up on the dream of space
colonization. But our current approach - using hugely
expensive rockets to launch a handful of people into space,
where they have nothing much to do - is a dead end. 


For information on advertising in e-mail newsletters 
or other creative advertising opportunities with The 
New York Times on the Web, please contact
onlinesales@nytimes.com or visit our online media 
kit at http://www.nytimes.com/adinfo

For general information about NYTimes.com, write to 

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

David Lochrin
+61 2 9363 1094
PGP public key available by emailing <pgp-public-keys@keys.pgp.net>
with subject : GET David Lochrin