The shuttle gamble

NASA is in a tricky position. They need to uphold their position as the nominal leaders in space exploration, but they have an ever-shrinking budget. Competition from other countries, plus the new wave of private space flight companies, is piling on the pressure. Putting off launches can delay other critical projects, like the building of the ISS. They have to be seen to get results.

So when I saw that the main man Mac Tonnies had linked to a news article describing dissent in the engineering teams at NASA over the proposed launch date for the next shuttle mission, I got a nasty feeling in my gut.

Rocketry is a tricky and dangerous business, and sadly we have seen not one but two previous fatal disasters involving the shuttle. The engineers are saying that the frost ramps that caused the last disaster should be totally redesigned before any more launches take place. The men at the top have scheduled the launch anyway.

It’s a shame that space exploration is so tied into politics, creating situations like this. It is probably also politics that informs NASA’s persistance with the shuttle, which it plans to finally retire in 2010. The Russians, for example, are still using simple rockets for launches; granted, the craft they put in orbit this way aren’t as adaptable or advanced as the shuttle, but the simplicity of the launch systems means that things rarely go wrong; they are tried and tested, and well understood. Hence, more launches can take place, because the overheads are lower (the Russian economy notwithstanding, of course).

Obviously, though, and as I’ve mentioned before, it would be even better if we could move away from the whole rocketry business entirely, and use methods of reaching orbit that don’t amount to strapping the payload and/or crew onto what is essentially a controlled explosion, and crossing our fingers. I’m a big fan of the space elevator concept (as regular readers will know), and there are other methods being kicked around various arenas as well, like the Slingatron and the Launch Ring, two similar concepts that involve accelerating a payload magnetically before launching it to orbit. But sadly all these concepts are still jus concepts at the moment, and the powers that be seem to like rockets better anyway.

So, I (and doubtless many others) am left hoping that nothing goes wrong with the next shuttle launch, depite the concerns from the people who build and maintain it that there could be problems again. Politics left aside, I have nothing but admiration (and a big chunk of envy) for the brave people who ride the shuttle (or anything else) into space, and I sincerely hope they have a safe and successful mission.

But I also want to see things change in the way space exploration is handled. We’re way behind where we could be, and the ramifications of another disaster could set back public opinion and hamper further efforts. And that would be a disaster in itself.

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