Stuck in the ’70s

Does the space program have a future? Gregg Easterbrook has already laid his arguments out recently, in a piece in Time magazine, so I’ll take the first shot in this dialogue.

Asking about “the future” is the kind of open-ended question that editors love to pose (and Slate’s did) in the aftermath of a calamity like the loss of the shuttle Columbia. Getting to the essence of the problem is difficult because there are so many layers at which you can look at it.

First, there is the emotional component. The Columbia crew were undeniably brave, talented people killed in the prime of their lives. It is hard to be unmoved by their loss, and this begs the question as to whether any endeavor is worth this cost. Two reactions occur almost reflexively—the sympathetic humanist reaction is no, this surely isn’t worth it. How could it be? Just as reflexively is the “quest must go on” reaction. There is a natural desire to reaffirm commitment to the cause in the face of such a tragedy. The families of the astronauts, the president, and many commentators rushed to stake out this position.

If it were just this issue alone, I think it would be easy to deal with. Space flight is risky, and everybody involved knows that—especially the astronauts. They chose, and their families are correct in saying that the astronauts would not want the program stopped for this reason. At the societal level, we need to respect this and not rush to second-guess. Risk is the sort of word that is easy to discuss upfront but tough to handle when it comes time to pay the piper. There will always be some who wimp out and second-guess when the pain hits, but that is a childish reaction.

So, if the only issue were the tragic loss of life, I think it would be easy to say that the quest must go on. The astronauts will still volunteer, and the nation should still support them.

Alas, this isn’t only a question of the tragic loss of life. The broader question of the future of NASA and the space shuttle is a complex stew of various issues. Unless you are careful to tease them apart and look at them individually, it is easy to get misled.

Another thread to follow is the very issue of space flight. Should we spend that much money putting seven people up into space? Or should we solve the problems here at home instead? This is fundamentally a political question, and as a result, the answer is fundamentally muddled.

At this point I should confess that I am a fan of nearly all forms of science and technology, including the space program. I think that an argument can be made that Kennedy’s outrageous call to arms of landing a man on the moon was a net positive to the nation from a great many perspectives. It was a bold vision, which had little direct importance, but there was a rich bounty of developments in many areas that came from this. Technology that was first invented in response to the space program found its way into hundreds of aspects of daily life.

But that was then; this is now. Even if you are a fan of space and technology, it is not clear that NASA’s current manned space program is money well-spent. Indeed even if you stipulate that same total budget must be spent on space research, is this the way to spend it?

Unfortunately, the answer here is quite murky. It is far from clear that NASA is pursuing a strategy that will have anything like the Apollo impact. Within NASA, the shuttle is perhaps the least groundbreaking project. Recall that Apollo was about creating brand-new technologies that did something unprecedented—putting men on the moon. The shuttle is, by comparison, a relic designed to make going into orbit routine. Consider that it is called “the shuttle”—it was supposed to be an economical way to get men and equipment into space—a means of transportation, not a miracle unto itself.

The contract to build the shuttle program was signed in 1972, based on a technology vision sketched in the 1960s. It was developed and built in the ‘70s and first flew in the 1980s. Back in the ‘70s when it got going, one could argue that the shuttle broke new ground, but at present the giant budget is all about keeping it working. The thousands of people that prepare the shuttle for launch aren’t inventing something new—they are trying to make very old machines keep working.

Scientifically speaking, the shuttle program seems very hard to justify—the cost is too high, and the benefits are too low. There aren’t the technology follow-up benefits Apollo had—to get that you’d have to develop a new system. The pure science benefits are modest compared to many other projects inside NASA (and out), all of which are unmanned probes. Indeed, many people with a deep interest in outer space believe that the shuttle, and NASA generally, unintentionally did more to stifle progress in space than drive it since the 1980s.

So, if the shuttle isn’t about science and technology benefits, what is it about? The reason this continues is yet another level in the analysis—the political aspects. The R & D benefits that Apollo brought were not why Kennedy proposed it and subsequent administrations supported it. Manned space flight is an enormous source of national prestige. After Apollo worked out so well, the natural thing was to stay in the man-in-space business.

This also explains part of the fallacy in comparing the cost of the shuttle program to other uses of the money—whether inside NASA or for other causes. We collectively have a special place in our heart for the manned space flight program—Apollo nostalgia is one element, but that is only part of it. American culture worships explorers—look at the fame of Lewis and Clark, for example. The American people want to think of themselves as supporting exploration. This public interest translates into politician interest. Once we got used to thinking of ourselves as the planet’s leading innovator in space, it was tough to shrink back from it.

It is a false choice to ask, “Couldn’t we use the money for something more noble?” The fact is that those other causes do compete for budget dollars, but in the grand bazaar (or is that bizarre?) of beltway politics, our choice has been to dig deep and spend on this. Suggesting that we give more money to noble but less inspiring choices is like telling people not to buy chocolate and instead apply money to dietary fiber supplements. Good advice if you can follow it but not very realistic.

The final level on which to look at the shuttle is technically—is the design good? Should it keep flying—from the pure technical perspective? Here, far from the emotion of the loss of the crew or the political debates, the answer is clear. Age can be wonderful for red wine, but not for spacecraft. There is no question that engineers could do a far better job designing a new shuttle.

Or maybe not a shuttle at all! The original vision for the shuttle was an airliner—a cheap, reusable vehicle that would zip back and forth to space quickly. It would cost $5 million per trip, and this radical drop in cost would open up space to all kinds of applications. The low cost would happen because it is reusable—unlike the expensive Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo to the moon, then fell into the ocean.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. It costs $500 million per launch, rather than $5 million. Now, if you had a great brainstorm and it turned out to be wrong by a factor of 100, you’d probably admit you failed. If a commercial company had a product that was a factor of 100 too costly, they’d go broke. However, in the case of the shuttle, this massive gap between vision and reality has simply been accepted. The main side effect is that it has sucked money from the budget for everything else—including nascent efforts to come up with something better.

It is quite possible that starting from scratch, a team of good engineers would nix the entire approach of flying into space in an airliner-style vessel. Maybe cheap one-shot rockets are better? The answer is not a foregone conclusion either way. It could be that advances in material science and other areas mean that we could finally realize the original shuttle vision—of a shuttle to space that is cheap and reusable.

Another big technology issue is computers. In 1972 they were quite primitive—laughable compared to what we have today in everyday life. Inside the shuttle, they still are. As one small example, clunky magnetic-tape drives store shuttle data. Remember eight-track tapes? Well, these days almost everybody uses digital media for music (CDs, MP3 players …), movies (DVDs) and other information (like, say, Slate). On the shuttle, they’re still back in the eight-track days.