Ground the Shuttle - Greg Easterbrook's Stunning Dissent
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
February 14, 2003
In a critique notable for the courage of its timing, Greg Easterbrook penned an article for the February 10 issue of TIME Magazine entitled "The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped."
At a time when everyone from bereaved survivors to George W. Bush were stoically intoning that the US space shuttle program "must go on," Easterbrook was revealing some harsh, and long-suppressed, realities.
"The core problem," Easterbrook noted is that the shuttle is "too expensive, too risky, to big for most of the ways it is used." The shuttles flying today now are 30 years old. They were designed to carry 50,000-pound payloads into orbit on weekly launches.
The weekly launchings never happened and shuttles rarely carry anything approaching that maximum weight. According to Easterbrook, the shuttle is an aging, overbuilt cargo truck that should be replaced by cheaper, more reliable unmanned rockets.
Last last year, the Space Launch Initiative, an attempt to kick-start construction of a less-expensive and more robust cargo rocket was cancelled (to the palpable delight of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and other members of the corporate United Space Alliance that have 6,400 jobs and millions in contracts riding on the shuttle program).
When it canceled the SLI vehicle, NASA was compelled to extend the working life of the surviving space shuttle fleet by another 20 years. As Easterbrook notes, even school buses are retired after 10 years of service. But school buses "don't endure three times the force of gravity on takeoff and 2000°F on re-entry."
Capitalism is supposed to eliminate systems that are costly, overdesigned and obsolete but, as Easterbrook points out, the US doesn't practice that form of capitalism. When it comes to the space shuttle, Washington practices corporate state socialism. As a result, a shuttle launch that was to cost $5 million now costs around $500 million. "Aerospace contractors love the fact that the shuttle launches cost so much."
The lure of profit is so heady that it has repeatedly blinded NASA to obvious risks. Before the Challenger exploded, engineers warned NASA about the danger posed by the O-rings on the booster rockets and pleaded for a cancellation of the launch. They were ignored.
Tragically, Easterbrook observes, the investigation that followed failed to fault NASA, failed to require safety redesigns, and failed to incorporate an escape capsule for the astronauts. "In return for failure," Easterbrook writes, "the shuttle program got a big budget increase. Post-Challenger 'reforms' were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place and that benefited from continuing high costs."
Congress was also loath to crack down on NASA since many states - Texas, Florida, California, Ohio and Alabama among them - derive sizable federal support from the funds lavished on aerospace contracts.
The Space Station is one of the biggest boondoggles since the pyramids. Originally projected to cost $14 billion (in 2003 dollars), Space Station Alpha has now cost at least $35 billion (excluding launch costs). Making clear that "this is not a misprint," Easterbrook notes that the bottled water on the space station "costs taxpayers almost half a million dollars a day."
"NASA's insistence on sending a crew on every shuttle flight means risking precious human life for mindless tasks that automated devices can easily carry out." A small "space plane" could be built for those rare occasions when it was essential to place humans in orbit.
Most of the research conduct on the Space Station could be accomplished by unmanned spacecraft, Easterbrook argues. The only research that requires humans in space are "life science" studies but placing astronauts about an orbiting skyscraper solely "to take one another's pulse [seems] a pretty marginal goal for such an astronomical price."
Why then, was the space station built? In Easterbrook's assessment, the situation represents little more than a super-expensive engineering tautology: "The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced."
Easterbrook joins other critics in demanding an investigation that is independent from a space-contract-corrupted Congress "and if human space flight stops for a decade while that happens, so be it.
"This second shuttle loss means NASA must be completely restructured - if not abolished," Easterbrook concludes. "This simply must be the end of the program."
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