Should we keep our space program?

As debate erupts over the future of manned space exploration in America, it is critical, I believe, to keep one fact in mind:  Both space shuttle disasters where entireley preventable, and both resulted from management decisions, not inherenent flaws in the vehicle design.  Yes, the vehicle is risky, but anything which travels  between 0 and 17,500 miles per hour is going to be dangerous.  Just getting in the family car is even more dangerous.

The shuttle Challanger was lost after NASA threw its own safety book out the window, for some reason, and went ahead with a launch under conditions which almost guaranteed that the vehicle would be lost, along with its crew.  The temperature overnight had fallen to about 28 degrees F., and had stayed below freezing for several hours.  The booster which was in the shade, the one one the right side, was still very cold at the time of the launch.  The huge ‘O’ rings which are used to seal the gaps between the rocket segments were too cold to be pliable, and the rings leaked.

The only reason that the spacecraft was lost was because it was flown when it was too darn cold.  And this temperature limitation was known and recognized, but was ignored for some reason.  If you put regular tires on a racing car, would you be surprised if they didn’t last very long?  Flying the shuttle that morning was tantamount to loosening the lug nuts on all four wheels of a car before taking it on the interstate.  Of course something is going to go wrong.

The loss of the Columbia was even more criminal.  Repeatedly, NASA management had been warned that insulating foam from the external tank was striking the orbiter, and that damage had occurred in sensitive areas.  One orbiter came back with a hole about the size of a lunch box in the leading edge of one wing, the same kind of damage that destroyed Columbia.  However, the management of NASA at the time felt that the problem could be dealt with during the process of preparing the shuttle for launch, and that the construction of external tanks did not need to be stopped until an answer to the foam problem was found.  The shuttles were kept flying, until a piece of foam punctured the wing of Columbia.

So, both shuttles were lost as a result of management error.  If operated properly, in the correct conditions, the shuttles have performed beautifully.  The only reason that retiring them has been chosen was because it would cost money to keep them flying, and the Bush administration wasn’t the least bit interested in space exploration.  Increasing the NASA budget 25 percent, to about 22 billion a year, would allow the shuttles to keep flying while the new generation of rockets are perfected.

Without the shuttles flying, any serious setback in the development of this new rocket could spell the end of the American space effort.  If we have to wait ten years to get back into space, we will probably just give up.  We are not likely to be the world’s leading maker of automobiles again, no matter how much we spend trying.  But we still are the best at manned space flight and exploration, and developing resources off-planet is the only long-term solution to our environmental problems.

Any view of the future which does not include off-planet exploration and development is seriously flawed, in my opinion.  The investment needed is really rather small,  far less than we spend building weapons which cannot keep us safe.  And the returns from that investment have historically been very high.  We need to make investments which will pay us back for years and years, so that our economy can grow into the debt that we have created.   Space travel is our bridge to the future, and that bridge is in danger of falling down.


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One Response to “Should we keep our space program?”

  1. Bill Cash Says:

    Cool blog. 🙂


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