Thursday, July 21, 2011

Atlantis Final

And there it is: NASA, the government agency that once gave us a space station with no shuttle followed by a shuttle with no station, is now back to the Skylab days; at least this time they've got a roommate who owns a ride.

A lot of folks are calling it sad, even tragic. Given the vehicle's record and what the late Richard Feynman turned up about the gap between engineering assessment of reliability (most systems with a rough 1-in-200 chance of catastrophic failure) and what their managers told NASA brass about it (1-in-200K or better!), it's more like a tragedy averted; had NASA kept rolling those dice, they would have kept on killing crews. Shuttle crews (a group with a far better understanding of math than the gen. pop.) kept on flying long after real odds came out -- and our space writers call cosmonauts "fatalistic?" -- which is a testament to their bravery and a glaring example of the space agency's ability to make the dramatic and heroic look, at best, mundane.

The Space Shuttle was never the "space truck" it was promoted to be. Plenty of other people have discussed why and most of them know a lot more about it than I do. So far, the cheapest and easiest ride to orbit is still a big conventional rocket carrying a single-use capsule -- and burning most of your luggage on the return trip. (I'm not razzing the Russians here; the Soyuez is a rugged machine. But compared to NASA's "space truck" or von Braun's 1950s needle-nosed shuttles, it makes drastic trade-offs in order to do the most work with the least amount of fuel).

As I wrote when Atlantis launched on this final Shuttle mission, there are plenty of alternatives almost ready to go. Unfortunately, as the don't-call-it-a-Depression winds on, it is more and more a race against time and one in which even hitting the benchmarks won't make success a sure thing -- SpaceX is highly likely to succeed at delivering the groceries and spare fuses and nearly as likely to get their capsule man-rated but if their main client (NASA) has to start kiting checks, getting all the engineering right won't matter.

The "finish line" -- more like merely a good beginning -- is a large commercial presence in space. I'm optimistic enough to think it's a decade away and pessimistic enough to fret that our imploding economy might not last that long.

It's steamship time -- I hope.


Kirk A said...

Here's a nice panorama of the Discovery flight deck:

Anonymous said...

Could the Air Force just blow the dust off the X-20?

Or would it just turn into another F-22: a hideously expensive, drawn-out, million-cooks-stirring-the-pot process that eventually gets cuts right before it's ready to go?

Justthisguy said...

I heard her come in, as she passed overhead at 0549 EDT. It was, Bump!..Bump!
I'll never hear that sound again.

Comrade Misfit said...

They could "blow the dust off" the X-20 about as easily as they could crank up the production line for the Saturn-V.

1 in 100 chance of dying and I get to go into Earth orbit? I'd sign up for that trip.