Monday, October 27, 2003

The Dismal Future of the Shuttle Program

NASA is currently digesting the CAIB report and planning the future of the shuttle program. Unfortunately, what is almost certain to happen is that the shuttle will patched up, fly a few more years, and then be replaced solely by some kind of capsule. There will be no "pickup truck," no "big rig," the other two necessary vehicles of a space program troika (the "pickup truck" being a reusable vehicle, probably unmanned, to carry heavy supplies to the space station, the "big rig," either manned or unmanned, reusable or expendable, a large booster to lift heavy payloads like space station modules and parts for potential lunar or Mars missions).

But to dump the shuttle program may be misguided and wasteful. The vehicle certainly can be upgraded and improved in safety. Instead, NASA seems likely to limit the shuttle to missions only to the space station, and launches only in daylight. A mission to recover the Hubble telescope and return it for honored retirement in the Smithsonian has been explicitly abandoned, and I would not be greatly surprised if the planned Hubble servicing mission follows. It's just not necessary to abandon the shuttle yet.

Studies of Columbia need to be made to determine, for example, how the crew module can be improved and made survivable. It's obvious in both Challenger and Columbia accidents that the crew pod, the strongest part of the orbiter apart from the aft engine mounts, separated from the rest of the orbiter airframe in one piece, perfectly intact. Since in an aerodynamic failure of this kind the crew pod will clearly survive, it would seem fairly easy to add parachutes for a controlled descent, giving the crew time to bail out on their own (each crewman currently wears a parachute). This simple addition would have saved the entire Challenger crew, who were alive until ocean impact. The remains of Columbia's crew pod should be studied closely to determine how long it remained intact and how an ablative coating might be added to protect the capsule until again, parachutes can open and the crew bail out as the capsule descends into the lower reaches of the atmosphere. There has been not a bloody word from NASA, an agency utterly blinded by lack of vision, on either of these possibilities. If they're impossible, let us know why. If they're possible, get to work!

Secondly, the performance of the entire shuttle system can obviously be improved, making up for weight lost to crew pod improvements and also eliminating the dangerous "return to launch site" abort scenario. Last Thursday, ATK Thiokol tested the most powerful solid rocket motor ever fired - a five segment version of the four segment shuttle solid booster. This booster was rated at an incredible 3.2 million pounds of thrust, compared to the 2.6 million pounds of thrust of the standard shuttle booster. This would so improve first stage performance as to ensure that any launch abort could land in Spain, rather than make the risky turn around to try a landing at KSC. But we read in the article that, no surprise, there is no plan to fly this new booster.

NASA truly needs a swift kick in the ass.

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