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Sunday, July 3, 2011

An engineer looks critically at the Shuttle

Everyone will be writing about the end of the Space Shuttle program this week, and I have something to say about it too.
After receiving my B.E.E. degree in 1976, I was employed to work on a NASA contract that exposed me to a programming language called HAL/S. It's not a household name, but the original software for the Shuttle's on-board computers was written in HAL/S. I happened to be back at Georgia Tech in 1977 when the test orbiter Enterprise made its initial glide flight and landing. So many people wanted to see it that the Computer Center put the real-time video from NASA on its closed circuit TV system. When I left the job at the NASA contractor to head for graduate school, I received a large photograph of that first Enterprise landing as a good-bye gift. In other words, I had some emotional attachment to the Shuttle program.

During the Shuttle program we learned many things: that "go fever" could drive intelligent and disciplined people to make stupid and undisciplined decisions; that space travel remains inherently risky; that sweeping problems under a rug (i.e., the propensity of insulating foam to break off) isn't synonymous with fixing them.

But most importantly, we learned that tens of billions of dollars can be spent on a program that was ill-conceived from the outset. The objective of the Shuttle program was a low-cost, high-reliability system to place satellites of a certain mass in a variety of orbits, including polar orbits from Vandenberg AFB. As it turned out, the Shuttle program had high costs, was prone to delays, and could not carry the payloads it was meant to because the Orbiter itself was obese.

By 1985 -- prior to the Challenger disaster -- everyone knew the Shuttle program would never attain its objective. The U.S. military quickly extricated itself from dependence on the Shuttle program. Nevertheless, NASA carried on for another 25 years. The Shuttle accomplished only two things that could not have been done at lower cost and risk by other vehicles: it repaired the Hubble space telescope, and it facilitated construction and operation of the International Space Station.

Of course, the hard truths are that NASA itself had screwed up the Hubble space telescope in the first place (thus requiring a repair mission) and that the International Space Station serves no real purpose. The ISS has been scheduled for de-orbiting -- that's NASA-speak for flying it into the Indian Ocean -- just nine years from now

Brilliant minds worked hard to make the Shuttle program as successful as possible. Some of them died in the process. I wish there were a more compelling legacy to justify the cost, in both dollars and blood. There isn't.