When I was a kid of 11, I went to see the Jamed Bond film, Moonraker, which featured a fleet of private space shuttles at the behest of a mad billionaire villain, Hugo Drax, out to destroy humanity from space. The most outrageous, and, therefore, best Bond film, I loved the movie so much, I saw it several times and soon bought the novel in 1980 Florida and read every word in the back seat of the rental car on vacation. My Space Shuttle T-shirt from the JFK space center gift shop, and a little metal space shuttle toy, are fondly remembered. The next year, my 7th grade science project was a model of the space shuttle Columbia sitting on its crawler. Don't remember my mark, and didn't really care.
I would have sold my soul to the devil just to sit in a space shuttle. But after the Challenger disaster, the price I would have paid dropped a bit. Saturday, it dropped again. If NASA loses another one, they're going to have to start paying me to sit in it. But another loss may not be a possibility. This could be the end of the line.
Considering that there have been only a 113 launches, and already two shuttles have been destroyed is, to me, and unacceptable rate of attrition. At that rate, we will lose the remaining three shuttles, Endeavor, Atlantis, and Discovery, and 21 more astronauts, in the next 166 launches. Is this acceptable? It's enough to finish the space station. Should that be the logic for its continued survival? Should that be the measure of its success? Should the space program play Russian roulette, using those odds?
Yes, a lot has been done with the shuttle, and one can justify it on a cost-benefit analysis alone. What is 14 people and 50 billion dollars worth of metal for 22 years of ground-breaking service? Some might say that this is a good return on investment. The US spends 1 billion dollars a day just on defence expenditures. Per day. And don't forget the benefits of Tang.
But all that notwithstanding, for me, the space shuttle is no longer morally acceptable. In the space race with the Russians, NASA was forced to play those odds to get there first. And a few cocky pilots were willing to risk it all for glory. But this is no longer the race to the moon. And an astronaut today is often simply a PhD in some scientific discipline riding as a "payload specialist". Risks that were acceptable 40 years ago, should no longer be acceptable today.
The shuttle is an early '70s design, and it uses the same chemical propulsion invented by the Chinese a thousand years ago. It's so complicated that one of a million different parts can fail and stop the countdown and often does. Or they fail in flight and destroy the shuttle and its crew. It has become the technological epitome of a very primative idea - going to space by strapping yourself to a million lbs of explosives, and accelerating your mass to a dangerously high speed, just to sustain a weightless condition. It really is something so absurdly dangerous in conception as to be right out of a Monty Python skit. In 50-100 years from now, we'll all laugh that we did it at all, and did it for so long.
There has to be a better system for getting people and material into space. And some NASA engineers think they may have found it. A lot cheaper, and a lot safer. Some experts say it could be built today. Some say a hundred years from now. Most engineers admit that it is within our technological grasp and possible in our lifetime's span.
I hope this accident will add renewed vigor to the feasibility of this new concept and hopefully herald the beginning of the end of the dark ages when man sat on gunpowder, lit the fuse, and prayed.
Nasa's space elevator