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David Darling's Newsletter #8


February 5, 2003


1. Meanderings
2. Where next?
3. Bookends

1. Meanderings

It was one of those "you'll always remember where you were" moments. I'd just been checking out a few news sites on the Web and was about to click off the BBC front page when the ticker caught my eye: "NASA reports having lost contact with the Space Shuttle." I got the sinking feeling in my stomach — you don't lose contact with the Shuttle unless you lose the Shuttle. And there it was on the TV, hurtling to Earth, a dazzling meteor with a horribly wrong collection of smaller bright blobs around it. What makes this, and the earlier Challenger disaster, so poignant is that these missions, and their crews, carried some of our highest aspirations. Every astronaut is a hero and every flight above the atmosphere is a triumph of the human spirit. To see Columbia incandescent and breaking apart was to be brutally reminded how fragile we and our dreams really are.

Well, I was going to write about Extraterrestrial Probes in this edition, but I think, in view of events, I'll postpone that for a while and give you some more thoughts on the Shuttle, the Space Station, and where NASA might go from here.

2. Where next?

NASA faces two major problems that it didn't have after Challenger blew up. The first, and most pressing, is that there is an enormous, vastly expensive, partly finished, and (for the moment) inhabited piece of hardware circling the Earth every hour and a half that depends critically on the Shuttle. Not only does the Shuttle ferry people, equipment, and supplies back and forth but it regularly (in fact, every time it visits) boosts the Space Station into a higher orbit. Every day the ISS loses about 100 meters in altitude — 3 km a month — because of drag from the outermost reaches of the atmosphere. Leave it too long and it'll do a Mir, only a very much more spectacular and potentially hazardous version of the Russian station's reentry. The little Progress ships that Russia sends up can carry about one tenth of the Shuttle's cargo and a crew of three, but they weren't intended to help keep the ISS aloft. So, obviously, to keep the Station in orbit, let alone keep it active, in good repair, and crewed, the Shuttle fleet needs to be back on-line much quicker than the 30-odd months it took to return to flight after Challenger.

The next problem is that NASA is down to three Shuttles and was already pretty hard-pressed with four to turn them around, refurbish them, and keep on top of the demands of the ISS and other manned science missions (the latter having been Columbia's main task). A replacement for Columbia is essential if the program is to continue on its present course. But here's the rub. In the wake of Challenger, there were enough spare parts around, including an almost complete test vehicle, to build a new Shuttle more or less exactly like the others. That option no longer exists. There are no Shuttle wings or fuselages or most of the other pieces needed to quickly assemble a stand-in. And the production line shut down long ago; even the tooling may no longer exist. So what to do? That depends on how NASA's mission and vision is changed when the verdict is in on what happened to Columbia and when the politicians have decided how much the agency will have to spend over the next few years. What is almost certain is that there won't be another Shuttle in the present form. NASA had already intended to replace the current vehicles, which have fallen well short of expectations in terms of economy, ease-of-use, and turnaround time, with a new space plane due to come online no sooner than 2010. Can that schedule be brought forward? Unlikely, without a massive injection of new cash. And, even then, there's a limit to how quickly research and development can move forward. The alternative is to rely on the three remaining Shuttles into the next decade and to pump money into the Russian program so that it can launch more Soyuz ferries and pick up the slack. I'm guessing this is what will happen.

But the future of the ISS now hangs in the balance. If one more Shuttle is lost — and I'm afraid the chances of that are not remote — the ISS would be doomed. My personal view, and I say this reluctantly because I'm a great fan of space exploration in all its forms, is that the ISS is one of the greatest white elephants in human history. It's a fantastic, awesome accomplishment in engineering terms. It's a triumph of human courage, determination, and ingenuity. But as a scientific investment, it's a disaster. When you think of the breakthroughs that have come from robotic missions, such as Voyager, Galileo, Mars Global Surveyor, the Mariners, the Hubble Space Telescope, and hundreds of other unmanned deep space and Earth orbiting spacecraft, at a fraction of what the ISS has cost to date, it makes you wonder why we went down that route. And the answer, of course, is that it really had very little to do with science or pushing back the frontiers of human exploration, and a great deal to do with Cold War military and political aspirations. Can you name one significant science result that has come from the ISS, after tens of billions of dollars of investment? And there is no prospect of anything much being achieved over the next few years either with only a skeleton staff of three aboard who spend most of their time housekeeping and troubleshooting instead of doing research.

So, what should happen next? That depends on whether we choose to persist with the ISS. If we do, NASA's funding should be increased so that it can do a proper job of building the Station with the additional modules, as originally planned, that would allow a full-time staff of seven or so astronauts to carry out a worthwhile research program. We would have to hope to God that no accident befell any of the three remaining Shuttles before the new space plane came into service. Frankly, I can't see this extra money becoming available, in which case the ISS becomes almost scientifically worthless and a waste of funds that could be put to far more profitable use elsewhere in the space program.

Let me be blunt. I think there's strong case for abandoning the ISS and using the many billions still needed to build and maintain it for other purposes in space, including more robotic missions to the planets, more unmanned space observatories, and an accelerated program to build the next generation of space planes. The ISS, astonishing achievement that it is, has become a millstone around NASA's neck which is slowing down our progress at the high frontier. We need to admit our mistakes and move on. In the long run, this might be a bolder and better tribute to the Columbia 7 than a program that is only one more loose tile away from disaster.

Please send me your comments and opinions on this and I'll be happy to post them in the next issue. I'm also looking into setting up a multi-thread forum on my web site whereby everyone can get involved in ongoing controversial discussions of this kind. If you have experience of setting up or running such forums, I'd be grateful for your insights.

3. Bookends

I'm very much in encyclopedia mode at the moment. "The Complete Book of Spaceflight" is already on the shelves, "The Universal Book of Astronomy" (a companion volume) is in the early phase of production heading for a pre-Christmas release, and the third encyclopedia in the series, on recreational mathematics, is just about at the finished manuscript stage. Then I'll be free to start the next project, which I won't tell you about yet, except to say that it involves a form of transportation that may some day make Shuttles, space planes, and every other mode of traveling through space completely obsolete!

Until next time,
Best wishes,
David Darling