Neil's News


8 July 2011

[Airfix ad for Space Shuttle, 1979]
The final Space Shuttle flight took off this morning. A large group of of us watched it at Google. Most of us were born after Apollo, so the Space Shuttle is the only NASA manned launch system we've ever known.

Digging through some old magazines from my childhood I found the advertisement on the right. Published on July 1979, it reflected the original expectations for the Space Shuttle system: a safe, cheap, routine vehicle which would shuttle back and forth to orbit. It would launch once a week, often just popping up for one orbit to launch a satellite then flying home.

I remember the life-cycle illustrations showing how the shuttle would be loaded with new cargo, refueled and sent back to the pad. It is interesting to compare that vision with photographs of reality.

Looking back at the thirty year train-wreck that was the Space Shuttle, I think there's one lesson that stands out. When migrating from one system to the next, don't throw away the old system until the new one has proved itself. NASA threw out the Saturn V rockets, chopped up their launch pads, then built the Shuttle. When the Shuttle failed to live up to expectations, there was no way to roll back to the Saturn V and Apollo hardware. Instead NASA was locked into the Shuttle. This was in stark contrast to the Soviet approach. They also developed a space shuttle (Buran), but during this time they kept the old Soyuz program alive. When their first test flight demonstrated that the shuttle concept was neither economically nor technically sound, they were able to keep going with Soyuz.

So has NASA learned from history? Let's see: the Space Shuttles are being disassembled for museum displays while NASA is planning its next system.

Elon Musk, you're our only hope.

< Previous | Next >

Legal yada yada: My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my goldfish.