Scitech | Last lift-off to low Earth orbit

Looking back on the NASA space shuttle program; forward to a future of privatized aerospace technology

It’s pre-dawn in southern Florida. Distant spotlights reflect off a white craft over the water, and at once, the craft is lost in the light of the rocket exhaust. Brighter than the sun, the ship silently rises up, faster and faster into the sunrise. A half minute later, the spectators are pummeled with a wall of sound, louder than anything you’ve ever heard, deafening as the space shuttle shrinks to a tiny point atop a titanic column of smoke.  
The drama that accompanies a shu-ttle launch will soon be a thing of the past, as NASA will be retiring the program soon after the next mission, the STS-133. The shuttles have been in service since 1981, and have greatly contributed to our modern understanding of the universe.

Discovery brought the Hubble Telescope to orbit, which has given us indescribable beauty and wonder as it allowed us to peer farther into the cosmos than we’ve ever been able to look before. The Chandra X-ray observatory, launched from Columbia, collected evidence for black holes among many other accomplishments. Many other satellites were launched that gave us unprecedented data about the cosmos and our own planet, including the fact that chlorofluorocarbons – a common refridgerant – were putting a hole in the ozone that we eventually stopped. Microgravity experiments performed aboard space shuttles eventually led to the development of the International Space Station, a symbol of peaceful international cooperation in an increasingly fractured world.

The history of the space shuttle program is also marred by tragic failures. Out of the five shuttles built to fly in space, only three remain intact today: two of the 134 missions launched destroyed the shuttles in flight. In 1986, Challenger exploded seconds after launch, taking six astronauts and a teacher with it, due to an inadequate devotion to safety and a lax  bureaucratic climate. The second failure, Columbia, was in 2003, and its loss was due to deteriorating systems combined with inadequate safety measures. These 23-year-old systems were critical in resisting the extreme temperatures found during re-entry into our atmosphere, but they were compromised during launch because of some debris that fell onto the wings during launch. Seven astronauts lost their lives during this failure.

The eventual monetary cost of the shuttle also proved to be much greater than its designers had ever predicted. The shuttle program began in the aftermath of the Apollo program, with the goal to have a spacecraft to shuttle people and cargo reliably to low-earth-orbit (LEO) – a necessary step, often the biggest hurdle, in any mission into space. The original shuttle program called for up to 55 launches a year, but complexity and unanticipated needs (such as the need to inspect 35,000 individual heat-resisting tiles after every landing) made that failed to make that plan a reality. The most complicated machine ever built would prove to be more challenging than they anticipated. The reality was a final cost of about $500 million per launch, with a total failure rate of two per cent (with human lives at stake, this is huge). The final ability to haul cargo to LEO was also much less than it had been just a decade earlier, as NASA retired the monstrous Saturn-5 rockets that brought man to the moon.

At the end of the last flight, NASA will lose its capacity to shuttle people into space, relying instead on the Russian Soyuz vehicles to service the human needs of the ISS. However, this lack of governmental involvement in manned space travel could be the best thing possible for the space industry, as private companies are now vying to fill in the gaps that NASA has left with the retiring shuttle. Some of the six billion dollars NASA has seeded into this private industry with their latest budget will go to projects like SpaceShip One, the Virgin Galactic-owned craft that will soon be flinging people into LEO over the skies of New Mexico. Others, such as the Falcon 9 rocket owned by SpaceX, are slated to ferry cargo to orbit at a fraction of the cost of the shuttle with similar payloads. For reference, the cost to get a pound of anything to orbit on the shuttle was about $10,000, whereas the Falcon 9 will get the same amount into orbit for $500.

With the burden of cargo lifting transferred to the private sector, NASA will be free to do what it does best: science. Instead of wasting half their budget on obsolete and dangerous technology, they can use their limited budget to better explore our universe, while opening up space travel to the rest of us. Personal space travel is today is where personal air travel was a century ago, and it can only improve with the room the retired shuttle will leave us. As for the space shuttle, its successes and failures will be forever remembered as part of our first, tenuous steps into the cosmic playground.