So with the landing of Atlantis, the end of the Space Shuttle program has finally come. And while it is bittersweet - I remember being able to watch the shuttle go up from my backyard (literally!) when we lived in Florida - you have to excuse me for slaughtering the sacred Huntsville cow.
The retirement of the Space Shuttle is long overdue.
As awesome as it is, it was designed in the 1960s and built using 1970s technology. It never fulfilled its design objectives. It was supposed to be able to launch payloads as cheaply as $118 per pound ($635/pound in 2011 dollars - as of 2011, the going rate is over $8000 per pound). The program was originally supposed to be able to launch an orbiter once a week, but by the end of the program, out of 135 missions that were launched during the 30 years after the first orbital flight of Columbia, it averaged approximately one every 3 months as the turnaround time ballooned. An orbiter had to be nearly disassembled after each flight. Design changes made it nearly useless to it’s largest customer - the US Military - because they could not launch into polar orbits (where satellites could be used to spy on the Russians and later the Chinese).
By the end of the program, this once proud vehicle had been reduced to nothing more than a Congressional play toy. The program became a “make work” program for 100 Congressional districts, based solely on how much money was “donated” by contractors to a Senator or Representative’s campaign. NASA was saddled with this program that kept going forward with no clear direction other than 1) build the space station, and 2) deliver crap to it.
In the meantime, we have a bunch of companies now - most notably SpaceX - standing around and looking for work. Elon Musk is over here waving his hand screaming: “we can do it for pennies on what NASA is spending” and is putting his money where his mouth is by building the biggest rocket since the Saturn V and a man-rated space capsule.
In an era of decreased Government spending - no matter what, even the most liberal among us must admit that we cannot continue to spend at the rate we have been spending - Government money must be spent in smart ways. It is most effectively used in areas where private industry is unable or unwilling to make the investment due to high barriers or high risk. As SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace and others are proving, flying into low Earth orbit is no longer risk averse or too expensive.
They are ready, willing and able - and should - take over the low orbit business from NASA, freeing the space agency to once again spend money where they can get the most bang for it - in areas where private industry can’t capitalize yet, such as deep space exploration, research and development, and eventually, a public/private partnership for a Mars mission.
At this point, my biggest irritation is that my Congresscritters - most notably the King of Pork Himself Richard Shelby - are doing little to nothing to attract private spaceflight to Huntsville. All the things that made Huntsville great for NASA would make Huntsville great for private industry. There’s a huge talent pool of engineers and scientists here with tons of experience. But he - and the rest of the Alabama delegation - continues to fight them at every turn rather than work with the private industry to bring them to Huntsville. Most of those guys have been in D.C. so long that they’re functionally brain-dead; all they know how to do is spend taxpayer money - they have no clue how to start or attract business.
Putting an end to the Space Shuttle program is was one of the very few things that George W. Bush did correctly during his disastrous presidency, and I’m glad Obama has grown enough of a tiny, tiny little spine and stood his ground - despite attempts at continued Congressional meddling - in ending the program.
Ending it is good for NASA, good for taxpayers, good for private industry and good for the United States. It’s up to my Congressmen and state government to decide if it’s good for Alabama and Huntsville.