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  Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

Thursday, 03 December, 2020

Scrap the Space Shuttle

Date: 15 November, 2005

By: Chief

Imaget is time. In fact, it is long overdue.

The very first flight of the shuttle, Columbia, took place the 12th of April, 1981. The flight lasted two days and Columbia returned to Earth the 14th of April. The last flight of any shuttle was, again, that of Columbia which started in mid-January and ended, in flames, February 1st of 2003. Twenty two years of hard use.

Let us face the facts. The shuttles are old. Furthermore, as compared to commercial jet aircraft, the shuttles age even quicker. The reason for this is due to the mere fact of having to exit and subsequently reenter Earth's atmosphere. It is a real hot ride going and especially coming back home. Around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit on the nose and leading edge of the wings, possibly higher. Commercial aircraft stay within our atmosphere. As such, commercial aircraft can last 30 years or more with proper maintenance and still turn a profit.

The same cannot be said for the shuttle program.

In twenty two years shuttles have flown a total of 113 times. That averages out to approximately 5 flights per year. Over the life span of the shuttle program, at least to date, the average cost to us — the taxpayer — is approximately $1.3 billion dollars per flight. That is a lot of groceries I could buy.

Even NASA has stated:

"Through its reusability, the Shuttle was also intended to provide low-cost, frequent access to space. Unfortunately, the Shuttle has never been able to fly often enough to bring launch costs significantly down" (quote from NASA).

The shuttle program, as you can deduce, is neither low-cost nor frequent.

Since the loss of Columbia in 2003, we are down to 3 purportedly operational shuttle spacecraft. We lost the Challenger shuttle in 1986. And NASA is talking about the possibility of maybe 5 launches per year through the end of the decade? I think that just could be a little much for those old, and getting much older with each additional launch and recovery, airframes to take. I sure hope I am wrong.

The issue is not that I am against space exploration. I am not. What bothers me is not the 'could' we continue with the shuttle program, but 'should' we continue with the shuttle program? I submit that we should not.

There were a total of 5 shuttles. We are down to three. Forty percent of our shuttle fleet has been destroyed. Couple that with the fact that there have only been 113 flights. Then add on the mere fact of how many times liftoffs have either been delayed or canceled outright. Whether the delay or cancellation was due to weather or some equipment glitch is irrelevant. The fact is the shuttles are neither reliable or overly safe. Consider what the FAA would do if forty percent of a company's fleet of aircraft were destroyed? They would go nuts. Indeed, some years ago one low cost airfare company lost two of their aircraft and the FAA basically put them out of business. Safety and reliability just are not in the shuttle program.

Furthermore, since the end of the Apollo missions back in 1972 or thereabouts NASA has become an agency in search of an actual mission. Sending the shuttle up into orbit around the Earth with a payload of purported scientific experiments, such as studying worms in a weightless environment, does not, to me, constitute mission accomplishment. That to me is an utter waste of time, money and a very fragile airframe.

I can think of better ways to utilize worms than sending them into space. On the end of a fishin' hook or in my garden are two mighty fine ways to use worms.

As you probably have noticed I have not made mention about the astronauts that we have lost in both the Apollo and the shuttle programs. I see no reason to. They knew the risks and willingly accepted them. I tip my hat to each and every one of them.

But there comes a point in time when the risks outweigh the benefits, be they real or perceived. We are already past that point by several years and need to bring the program to a rapid close. We need to do it now. You can only learn so much being in orbit around the Earth for a period of a couple of weeks. Additionally, worms do not speak.

Our Congress, on the other hand, back in July decided to legislatively endorse King George the Bush's plan for returning to the Moon and then off to Mars. The Congress also endorsed NASA's budget to the tune of $34.7 billion greenbacks. Lastly they suggested, not mandated, that NASA retire the remnants of the shuttle fleet by the year 2010. It would be nice if all three were left.

What is the point of returning to the Moon? As the saying goes — been there, done that. For that matter what is the point in trying to send a spacecraft to Mars? It is not like we are going to colonize and farm it anytime soon. It makes no sense.

Mars is approximately 100 millions miles away from Earth. At that distance it would take about 2 1/2 years to get there and 2 1/2 years to get back. That is one barn burner of a commute. The only other way would be to wait until Mars is much closer to Earth, due to its own orbit, and launch at that time. The down side to that method is the the group would remain on Mars for about 500 days before being able to return to Earth. Either way it would be a logistical nightmare. And nobody has any clue what the cost would be.

Let us, for the moment, take the total cost of the Apollo 11, the first landing mission on the Moon. The price tag for that one mission was $355 million bucks in 1969. The price tag for a single shuttle flight, when everything goes exactly right, is $1.3 billion in 2003. We are not even ready to attempt a flight to Mars anytime in the next few decades. How much will the cost be in say, oh, 2035? Thirty years from now? A $100 billion dollars? Maybe more ... maybe less. But a whole wad of cash that we taxpayers would end up footing the bill for.

And for what purpose? Yes NASA would finally have a real mission and yes we would, hopefully at least, accomplish something. But would it be worth the cost?

I say no.

We still do not know what is at the bottom of the sea. We have no way of efficiently mining minerals from the deep sea floor. We do not have a cure for diabetes, cancer, AIDS, etc. Our Social Security trust fund is (and always has been) empty. Our annual debt is so tall I don't see why we could not use it as a staircase to Mars. It is that bad (we are awash in red ink). Yet our Congress — who do not pay for a single thing — thinks it's a really great idea to spend many more billions of dollars on a program (return to the Moon and then off to Mars) where the return on investment is zero. El goose egg.

I say we ought to fix our own yard and house before we go venturing off to someone else's. After all, we should clean up our own mess instead of leaving it for our posterity.

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