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Challenging Columbia

The shuttle programme was born, not to take man to the stars, but to keep NASA's post-Apollo budget from going down the tubes.

Norman Levitt

Topics Politics

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What killed the Columbia crew (and the Challenger crew exactly 17 years earlier)? Ignoring the technobabble and going to the root of things, the answer is the Iron Law of Bureaucracy: keep the outfit in business at all costs.

The shuttle programme was born, not to take man to the stars, but to keep NASA’s post-Apollo budget from going down the tubes. The natural extension of Apollo would have been a manned mission to Mars or perhaps the estab­lishment of permanent lunar bases. Whether these would have been justifiable aims is up to you. But NASA was shrewd enough to realise that from its point of view, they were pipe-dreams, certain to run into a budgetary brick wall in a few years at most.

On the other hand, a workman-like agenda devoted to launching commercial and scientific satellites with unmanned boosters, supplemented, perhaps, by a modest Apollo-technology manned-flight programme ran directly afoul of the Iron Law. It would have entailed permanent shrinkage of budget, personnel and prestige compared to the lunar-mission glory days.

The shuttle programme was specifically designed to escape this dilemma. It was cheap enough to be fundable indefinitely, yet expensive enough to keep NASA in clover. Its emphasis on human astronauts, initially of the square-jawed, hot-pilot variety – real live pilots, not just passengers – played to the public’s sci-fi inspired vision of what spaceships and spacemen should be like. This idea was gratefully embraced by the military, which was to supply the highly visible Top-Gun heroes.

For science, however, the whole business was a sharp kick in the teeth. Scientific projects were postponed or abandoned as the development of the shuttle itself drank up money and technical expertise. Researchers who had committed themselves to shuttle-launched research were stymied by endless delays and occasional cancellations. Even the ongoing manned-spaceflight programme was shredded; the existing Skylab space station was allowed to crash back to Earth, though it could easily have been saved.

What has happened since? Might recent achievements justify the shuttle after all? No, alas. Virtually all the scientific work performed by the shuttle, including the launch of the Hubble telescope, could have been done faster and cheaper with unmanned boosters, automation, and appropriate telemetry. The same holds for commercial and military applications. The few tasks that required human astronauts (the various upgrades to the Hubble, for instance) could either have been avoided by different designs or carried out with a much less elaborate manned flight programme – one that would have been safer as well as much cheaper.

As early as the 1980s, it was clear that the shuttle had degenerated into a mere publicity billboard. That was why the Challenger was hurried into its fatal mission on the eve of Reagan’s State of the Union speech. And that’s why shuttles have since been frequently used to give joyrides to high-profile guests from friendly nations and ageing American politicians.

Most recently, the merging of the shuttle programme with the even more boondogglish International Space Station has further crippled real science. The first victim was the Superconducting Super-Collider, which, though costing only a tiny fraction of the manned space budget, would have been an instrument of incalculable importance to under­standing the physical world.

The shuttle was, and is, vulnerable to fatal accidents because it is a system designed for the flashy but superfluous task of landing like a glider with a human pilot at the controls. The system is awkward and full of vulnerabilities that never threatened the spacecraft of the 1960s. It remains hideously expensive and inefficient because it is so fragile. Promised economies of scale never emerged. Using a shuttle to launch satellites is like building, provisioning, crewing, and sailing a luxury yacht, rather than a barge, to haul scrap iron.

All in all, the shuttle programme has retarded science, and contributed nothing notable to commercial or military use of space. Most ironically, it has suppressed, for a generation past and probably far into the future, any serious attempt to begin manned exploration of the solar system. Recall that since Apollo, no astronaut has gone further than a few hundred miles into space. This is a direct consequence of the design limitations of the shuttle.

In an intelligent and judicious world, the Columbia tragedy would, better late than never, doom the shuttle programme and the misbegotten Space Station as well. But in the world we live in, NASA stands a good chance of emerging, a broken-winged phoenix, with a mandate to continue wasting our time and money – and probably, as well, the lives of astronauts more valiant than perceptive.

Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. He is author of Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture and co-author of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.

Read on:

After Columbia: why we must still boldly go, by Mick Hume in The Times (London)

The end of the space race?, by Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics

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