Anybody with an interest in space exploration has known, pretty much ever since
the Columbia first launched in 1981, that the space shuttle was, scientifically
speaking, a white elephant. It was designed as a workhorse capable of taking
large loads into space on a regular basis, but it never came close to fulfilling
that destiny. Desperate to justify the shuttle’s existence, NASA started getting
its astronauts to perform scientific experiments in space. On the Columbia’s
last mission, the experiments included taking photos of dust and watching how
bugs get on in zero gravity. None of this was interesting or important, and
no one even pretended that it was.
So when people say
that the space shuttle ought to be scrapped because unmanned space flight is
cheaper and more scientifically useful, they’re basically doing little more
than repeating what’s been said for decades. They’re also missing the point:
the shuttle was never designed primarily as a scientific research device. Whatever
scientific knowledge that can be gleaned from spaceflight is an ancillary benefit.
I’m reminded of my sister, sunning herself (24 hours a day) in Antarctica right
now, on a hugely expensive scientific project which, while useful, is only
funded because of the UK’s geostrategic claims on the continent. Britain needs
a presence there, and scientists are a great way of establishing that presence
without any kind of belligerence. Remember that just as most astronauts come from the
military, Antarctic bases are usually run by military officers.
The reason why the Columbia disaster was huge news all over the world was not
because seven people died, and it was certainly not because the disaster might
have marked the end of any project of scientific research. Rather, humanity
identifies with the desire to conquer new territories, to explore our world
and its environs to the very limit of our abilities. That a man has walked on
the moon causes wonder even today; that a man hasn’t walked on the moon in decades
is evidence of the fact that doing so is of only the most marginal scientific
interest. When Columbia broke up on re-entry, the dreams of millions of people
around the world crashed back down to earth with it. (Think of when Lady Di
died: people mourned not an individual death, so much as everything she stood
But just because the space shuttle is a powerful symbol of America’s strength
and humanity’s quest for the heavens is no reason not to scrap it. The best
piece about the shuttle written in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster is
essay in Time magazine by Gregg Easterbrook, titled The Space Shuttle Must
Be Stopped. Easterbrook clearly lays out why the shuttle is a flying anachronism,
worth billions of dollars to what used to be called the "military-industrial
complex" but fundamentally an answer without a question. You want manned
space flight? Fine. Safer, cheaper space vehicles could be built if the space
shuttle programme were scrapped, but it’s got so much political and economic
inertia that its abolition and replacement is almost impossible.
It’s pretty hard to imagine a bigger waste of money than the space shuttle.
Each launch costs half a billion dollars, a hundred times more than the launches
were originally meant to cost once the programme was up and running. Its primary
purpose is to build the International Space Station, whose own primary purpose
is to provide something for the space shuttle to do. The space station has already
cost $35 billion; the cost of its crew’s bottled water alone is almost half
a million dollars a day.
The really annoying thing is that all of this money-burning is actually hindering,
not helping, space exploration. If we’re interested in exploration at all, what
we need is an easy, cheap and safe way of getting into orbit. The shuttle, of
course, is none of the above. If the US government were to put its efforts into
developing such a transportation system, then it’s even possible that the private
sector would step in and help take things to the next level. But the space shuttle
and the space station are like huge vacuums, sucking up all available government
funds, and leaving nothing left over to modernise or rationalise humanity’s
adventures in space.
The US, it seems, learned nothing from the Challenger disaster in 1986. It
kept on running the shuttle programme regardless of its obsolescence, and has
essentially spent the last 17 years marching down a dead end. It’s time to stop
throwing good money after bad, and to start asking why we’re doing this at all.
The half-finished space station can be kept as a memorial to the hubris of the
USA and the avarice of its contractors; the shuttle itself, like the Apollo
programme, can then be remembered as something which sparked the imagination
of billions rather than as a white elephant with a nasty habit of killing astronauts.
The quest to put men into space is noble. The desire to keep the space shuttle
flying is not.