Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Adios, Space Shuttle

I came of age in the era of the Space Shuttle, and have many life moments tied to various successes and tragedies of the program, including being in attendance at the very first Amazing Meeting when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry over Texas.

Skepchick’s own Masala Skeptic is in Orlando to witness it, but since the final Shuttle mission (Atlantis) is scheduled to launch tomorrow (weather permitting), why don’t we just open the floor for today’s AI for you to reflect, reminisce, and speculate about the past program and future programs?

Feel free to recount your memories/misgivings of the launches, missions, the economics, and even the politics related to the Shuttle program.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. For a float in our high school’s homecoming parade, we built a shuttle. One guy got in a little trouble for putting some fireworks in the back.

  2. I’m young enough that for me, the symbol of space travel has always been the Space Shuttle. I had a glow-in-the-dark Lego Space Shuttle when I was a kid, and I used to put it together and tear it apart all the time. I remember watching the movie Space Camp, which affected me profoundly as a kid. I watched it again recently and was surprised that it holds up pretty well. For me, the Space Shuttle has always been an inspiration and tightly connected with my love of astronomy.

    I was in about 3rd grade when the Challenger exploded, and I have an impression of being on the playground at school when I heard the news. This is probably inaccurate, given the malleable nature of memory, but I have the impression anyway. I think I was mostly disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to watch the live video of Christa McAuliffe answering kids’ questions while in outer space. I wish I could say I didn’t repeat any of the stupid jokes about NASA standing for “need another seven astronauts” but I know I did. We were all stupid kids and we didn’t know how to deal with it.

    As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for the determination and the sacrifices that so many people have made for the sake of science and exploration. Not just in the Space Shuttle era, not even just in the space era, but throughout history. It’s hard work and many people have given their lives to see it through. The fact that we keep doing it gives me hope for the future. I sure hope we keep going. I don’t know if there is a secular equivalent of “so long and godspeed”, but if there is, then I would make it my farewell to the Space Shuttle.

  3. I remember seeing a movie about the space shuttle when visiting a NASA facility as a kid a few years before the first launch and being amazed. Imagine that, a reusable spacecraft!

    I was a junior in high school when the Challenger exploded. It is one of those “where were you?” moments. I found out when a friend told me as I was hanging around after lunch.

  4. Not to be a buzzkill, but I think this marks the end of the US space program for good. Just seeing how our Govt and political system have deteriorated makes it almost a certainty.

  5. I like the throwback photo accompanying the title. It’s got to be from STS-1 or STS-2 when the ET was still painted white.

    As far as pros and cons of the Shuttle program, I’ll just mention one pro: The Hubble Space Telescope is still active and acquiring great images despite an incorrectly formed primary mirror. Perhaps the service could have been done remotely, but it certainly was done by Shuttle mission crews.

  6. In 1990 my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Orlando. A visit to the space center was mandatory. We had the good fortune to arrive at the center as they were working up the shuttle for a planned flight that evening.

    They had just pulled back the servicing gantry so the shuttle itself was completely visible. But they had not yet started fueling which meant that the tour buses were allowed to go all the way up to and around the pad. Nowadays they don’t do that.

    Unfortunately a problem prevented them from launching that night and eventually they actually had to roll the shuttle, Atlantis IIRC, off the pad.

    But seeing being just a hundred feet from a shuttle on the pad is something I’ll always remember.


    1. NoAstronomer: You bastard! I’m jealous. On the other hand, the Smithsonian Udvar Hazy center at Dulles is close by to me and is slated to get OV-103, Discovery, when de-commissioning is completed. So I should get a close approach then. Hubble was deployed off of her (and serviced a couple of times), not that I’m partial at all…

  7. I am aware of, and sympathetic to, peoples emotional connection to the shuttle, but that is the only reason why I won’t be openly celebrating when the last shuttle lands. While I’ve been excited about space exploration almost as long as I can remember, most of that time I have held the shuttle in low regard. I’m sure that if I had been around when the program was proposed, I would have agreed that the logical next step after Apollo was a reusable launch vehicle to dramatically lower cost into orbit, and outward after that. However, the shuttle never achieved it’s original purpose; it was more re-salvageable than reusable and launching to LEO was more expensive than ever. The program really ought to have been scrapped by the early 80’s, but instead it became a jobs program that was allowed to bleed the manned spaceflight program dry. For the last 40 years, the shuttle has devoured whatever funding that could be mustered cycling men and women back and forth from low earth orbit, as if that constituted a manned space program. I for one hope that with its death comes the political and financial opportunity to do something meaningful in space once again.

    1. I’m intrigued to hear your vision for space exploration, since you seem to be an expert in it. What was your plan starting in the “early 80’s”?. Perhaps you had a moon-return mission in mind? Or maybe a Mars mission? What architecture did you propose or would you have proposed? The American space community could use a visionary like you.

      The Shuttle program was not a human-rated space program?? (“Manned- and Man-rated are now really passe, given the demography of the astronaut corps.)

      Mars mission?? No sweat. Don’t worry about: the travel time, the radiation exposure, and, oh yes, the Republican obsession with cutting all spending not related to their hero, George W.’s, wars and tax breaks for oil companies. We will be lucky if the house Repubs will let climate monitoring satellites continue to operate, since the data might tend to suggest that global warming may be occurring and that it maybe, possibly, might be related to human influence.

      1. There are many things that could have been done instead of the space shuttle program, and that’s sort of my point. The program was never designed to be an end unto itself, but because it failed at it’s goal of making space cheap, NASA only had enough money for the first step. To be more specific about what should have been done instead, essentially anything involving a disposable or semi-salvageable heavy launch vehicles would have been better than the shuttle. It would have been cheaper per payload mass than the shuttle, and would have been able to launch sufficient payloads for initial deep space exploration. Essentially, the “flexible path” option that NASA has theoretically chosen to follow the space shuttle. Better yet, they could have implemented Robert Zubrin’s mars direct plan. While Zubrin is deleteriously optimistic about the budget of his plan, the program almost certainly could have been developed for less than the combined costs of the shuttle and space station. Such a program would have culminated in the capability to launch two-year missions to mars for the cost of 4 or 5 shuttle launches.

        When I say that the US hasn’t had a manned space program in 40 years, implicit in that statement is the assumption that a “manned space program” involved space exploration, not the continued habitation of the barren desert of LEO.

        As to the current crop of republicans, If they get in control we’ll be lucky if they let us have schools.

        1. I can’t possibly disagree that the shuttle program failed to live up to the initial claims (pretty much space access being too cheap to meter like nuclear power). I will, however, quibble about the, “barren desert of LEO.” We don’t have any evidence of current life on our most-hospitable, nearest neighbor, Mars. There are signs that the conditions that we know are conducive to life may have been present on Mars in the past, and it will take some serious exploration to clear things up. Whether that is human or robotic remains to be seen, but the musings of novelists aside, long-term human habitation on Mars has to come to grips with the serious problem of a lack of magnetopause of Mars. If humans are to live there, it will be underground for generations at best. There is probably more life in LEO in the frozen droppings of numerous space missions than is on Mars now.

          The moon? What is the point of the moon? Not for interplanetary craft construction, because that’s just one more gravity well to escape from. Space mirrors? Maybe, but it turns out to be a bit dusty there.

          As for re-usable portions of launch vehicles, the SRB shells of the Shuttle program were re-used (as well as, at significant expense, the orbiters and their main engines). But SRB’s are a hugely controversial part of future human space flight. We don’t currently have throttleable SRBs and there are failure scenarios in which they turn into massive fire crackers.

          If you are saying that we should channel a portion of the NASA budget ( by the way, the total NASA budget is about the size of the *increase* of military spending for next year) into reliable launch systems, then I’m with you. If you think that the U.S. should just pay some commercial entities for launch services, the I would suggest that the same philosophy leads to us having no standing armed forces and paying mercenaries to fight our wars.

  8. I remember at least 3 or 4 other shuttle launches being advertised as the last one ever. Is this actually the last one or not?

    1. This is it. Lots of people apparently claimed “last mission” previously, when the fine print was actually “last mission for Endeavour” or “last mission for Discovery”, but the previous mission (Endeavour, STS-134) was previously scheduled to be the last mission, with Atlantis to be an emergency “launch on need” flight to rescue the crew of Endeavour if something went wrong and they couldn’t safely re-enter or land. Since Columbia, the next shuttle mission has always been prepared to fulfill this role if needed. However, since it would require the next shuttle be fully assembled and prepared for launch (in the VAB) before the previous shuttle left the ground, there was a real stopping problem. For well over a year, NASA has been trying to get approval for Atlantis to launch with a minimal crew[*] as one final mission, but they didn’t get official final approval until early this year (but well before Discovery and Endeavour’s final flights.) Even though it was officially approved and on the schedule, many commentators who should have known better were still claiming, right up until its launch, that Endeavour was the final shuttle flight. This was sheer carelessness.
      [*] If the crew gets stuck up there, they will hold out on the space station. The next several Soyuz crew rotation flights will launch with only 1 or 2 astronauts, and they will cycle the Atlantis crew home in the empty seats. This is feasible with the 4-person Atlantis crew, but not with the 6 or 7 people on the previous missions. It would just take too long with more people, and the large crew would consume the food, water and oxygen on the station more quickly than unmanned resupply flights could replace them.

  9. I am a bit of a sucker for “firsts” and “lasts” so I will be hoping to catch the lift off in a little while. Several years ago I watched an early morning shuttle launch from a beach near Cape Canaveral and it was spectacular. Watching it on NASA TV won’t have the same emotional wowness but, it’s as close as I can get today.

  10. I’m a space *activist* and I’m glad to see the shuttle go. Not because it’s not a great vehicle, but because we need to move on to more long-term sustainable approach to manned space exploration.

    We learned a lot through the shuttle and got a lot done with it, but it has no potential to evolve into an economically sustainable vehicle for going outside of or even frequently servicing low earth orbit so . The reason: $600 mil – $1 bil per launch.

    If a long term *sustainable* human space access infrastructure is to be formed then the cost of launch must lowered to a level where it’s economically viable for governments and companies to utilize it frequetly. Right now only the US and Russia can put humans in space at the frequency of 2-3 per year, but if the cost was lowered to even $10 million per launch, many governments and private companies could afford to send hundreds of people there to setup commercial operations and an infrastructure for going beyond earth.

    And that’s NASA’s new focus, making it cheaper by funding viable commercial entities. Who might these be? Well they include
    SpaceX – A company that’s got an LEO rocket that goes to orbit for $10 million which has the goal to make human access much cheaper.

    Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites – Two companies who are trying to get a tourism industry in suborbital space with the eventual goal of making suborbital transit a reality.

    Xcor – A company trying to build rocketplanes and propulsion systems for suborbital flights.

    Bigelow Aerospace – A company focused on building cheap commerical habitats in space.


    Basically there’s a new boom on the horizon similar to the aviation boom of 1908, it’s just going much slower because space is hard and it’s much harder than it looks. And what are these companies doing ultimately? They’re building multiple pieces of affordable infrastructure with the hopes of building an economically viable space economy. If we’re going to live & work in space, we need to make it cheap to reach so that an economy can be built around it.

    So lets take the money from the shuttle and put it into these emerging alternatives!

    Here’s a mainstream article articulating these points:

  11. Ambivalent about the Shuttle. As a space vehicle it was way overhyped, but it was there. Sigh, the future ain’t what it used to be.

  12. I went to watch the third to last launch since it fit in my schedule and I figured the last one would be insanely packed. I really wanted to see one live.

    The program itself was a compromise between many competing interests, both civilian and military. (The military insisted that the shuttle be able to launch over the North Pole and return to the US in a single orbit.) Not too surprisingly, when one has many different interests, the compromise isn’t very good at any of them. The shuttle ended up being usable for about a tenth as many launches per a year as were projected. Overall, the shuttle was better than nothing. But yeah, I’m not too sad to see it go.

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