Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Process of discovery...

Mark Kelly, the pilot of the upcoming flight (STS-121) of the Space Shuttle Discovery, has been quoted as saying,
To really quantify a risk in a vehicle, you actually don't need a lot of flights. You need a lot of failures. Hopefully we won't have any more failures, but we've only had two, so it's hard to get your hands around what the real risk of flying the space shuttle is... - Mark Kelly, talking to Florida Today
His argument that the Shuttle should be regarded as an experimental aircraft, still early in it's flight testing phase is telling. At last, near the bitter end, some realism about what the Shuttle is, and always has been, is coming out of NASA. The Shuttle was sold to the public as a solution to a very real problem, the high cost of getting into space, that it was never going to be able to solve after the draconian budget cuts, and design by committee management, imposed by the politicians during its birth.

The initially predicted fifty flights a year for each of the orbiters now seems, in hindsight, almost laughable. Even before the first flight of the Columbia in 1981 there was considerable doubt that that this could be achievable. However the revised, more realistic goal, of 10 or 12 flights also a year proved to be overly optimistic. While launch rates reached 9 per year in 1985 they have averaged far less ever since.

QuickTime | Windows Media | Real Video
NASA video taken from the International Space Station of Discovery's full pitch manoeuvre during the previous return to flight mission (STS-114).

With the demise of Concorde, we lost a piece of engineering elegance, and replaced it with a lumbering giant in the name of cost cutting. Depressingly the cost cutting in Shuttle programme was up-front, and as a result we ended up with an engineering kludge. Although I must admit to a certain fondness for kludges, and the ability of the Shuttle and her crews to inspire me even today, I am bitter as to what could have been if NASA had been given a free rein in the wake of the Apollo programme.

The Space Shuttle programme has never lived up to its initial advertising. Despite this, and my biting criticism, both now and in the past for what the programme and NASA itself has become after being twisted by the politicians, I believe in the manned space programme. The manned programme is something we should be pouring money into, it's one of the few things the human race is doing that's worthwhile. While there are few direct benefits, at least not yet, we must support it as a duty to those people doing unique things. Because they're the people who, by pushing themselves forward, take the rest of us with them...

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