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Scuttle the Shuttle Now
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) Jul 29, 2005
The dismal failure of the Shuttle RTF effort should signal the end of NASA's suicidal love affair with this fundamentally unworkable spacecraft.

    "By any measure of 'safe,' this[program] is not safe... It remains dangerous. We have got to replace this vehicle as soon as possible." -- CAIB Chairman Harold Gehman

    "The Shuttle is fundamentally flawed." - NASA Administrator Mike Griffin

These distinguished experts were completely vindicated by the STS-114 launch. Others were not so lucky (even with the advantage of speaking after the launch):

"Today's launch was clean compared to past launches. I feel very good about where we are in this mission so far." -- John Shannon, manager of space shuttle operations.

"After the Columbia Tragedy, NASA improved its safety protocols and changed its assumptions about how to prepare for human space flight. The NASA culture has been reinvigorated and has regained some of the focus it had lost. America can be proud that we continue to lead the world in space exploration." -- Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA)

"This tireless team of NASA engineers, scientists and support staff deserve our congratulations." -- Rep. Bert Gordon (D-TN)

"Our brave NASA team has returned the United States to flight and led us into a new era of space exploration and research. This NASA crew worked with a steadfast commitment to new safety thresholds and risk reduction." - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)

"The successful launch of the Discovery Space Shuttle is an event NASA and the American people should feel proud of... I congratulate all those who have worked to return Americans to space." -- Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO).

NASA has spent 2.5 years and an estimated $14B maintaining the overall Shuttle program while trying to 'fix' a backlog of faults.

And now despite spending billions in federal space funding we are right back where we started, with another Shuttle crew having narrowly escaped another shower of foam fragments. Several of these fragments even came off in almost exactly the same place as that which doomed Columbia.

Today, the dwindling army of Shuttle cheerleaders are talking about yet more studies, yet more safety upgrades, yet more money and time dumped into this gaping black hole. We should ignore them.

There simply is no modification or upgrade that can make the Shuttle system acceptably safe from debris strikes. The original design decision to place a fragile heatshield alongside a foam-covered cryogenic tank and fly them at supersonic speeds was wrong. The whole history of aerospace craft tells us that this kind of basic design error can never be fixed by retrospective band-aid modifications.

And why bother? The only thing we can get in return for the $25-30B now budgeted for Shuttle operations between now and 2010 is more heartache and more delays in the new space initiative. Every day that Shuttle cancellation is put off, another $15,000,000 is wasted and the return of humans to the moon is delayed by another day.

"The only thing we can get in return for the $25-30B now budgeted for Shuttle operations between now and 2010 is more heartache and more delays in the new space initiative. Every day that Shuttle cancellation is put off, another $15,000,000 is wasted and the return of humans to the moon is delayed by another day."
The only reason left to fly the Shuttle is to finish the International Space Station. But simple arithmetic tells you that it is not capable of doing this task. The original ISS assembly plans call for 28 more Shuttle missions before compulsory retirement on 30 September 2010. Even before the fiasco of RTF-2, Mike Griffin had stated that there will be only 16 to 20 more Shuttle missions. With the rumored 1-year delay imposed by making even more safety improvements, this number shrinks to 12-16.

There has been much talk of shifting some of the ISS assembly load to Progress, ATV, and HTV. But it is unlikely that the production rate of these vehicles and their launchers could be rapidly increased enough to carry the mass allocated to those ~14 cancelled Shuttle missions. In any case, none of these vehicles is capable of carrying major ISS components (or even the standard experiment rack).

It is thus inevitable that the "final" configuration of the ISS will lack many of the major elements now planned. Even after you omit the useless politically inspired hardware like the viewing cupola, there is still too much ISS hardware stacked up in warehouses. Either some lab modules or the solar panels needed to power them will have to be omitted from the "completed" ISS.

And after 30 September 2010, there is no possibility of supporting the station and its 6-person crew. If you didn't believe my back-of-the-envelope calculation two years ago, there is now an elaborate NASA study that comes to the same conclusion. Of course this is no accident; Shuttle and Station were designed as technical Siamese Twins so that each is totally dependent on the other.

Clearly, the ISS is only a planet-wide public works project and can never become a working space laboratory. How can we possibly ask our astronauts to assume a 1.75% risk of death per flight for this idiotic project?

To put this number in perspective, the combined combat loss rate of B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers flying against Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II was only 1.64%. The peacetime operations of the Space Shuttle are more dangerous than wartime missions against the most efficient enemy air force the USA has ever faced!

But the important comparison is in the loss rate of crews. On average, about 8 men from each 10-man heavy bomber crew survived the loss of their aircraft by parachuting or riding a crippled plane down to a belly landing. So the risk of death was only about 0.3% per mission.

But the Space Shuttle has no escape system, due to fundamental technological problems that apply to all winged spaceplanes. NASA has given up trying to design such a system because the task is impossible. There are very few scenarios in which crews could survive the loss of the vehicle.

So the ugly truth is that every time that NASA launches astronauts on the Shuttle, they face a risk of death that is SIX TIMES HIGHER than that of combat aircrews in the most dangerous aircraft in the most intense air war ever fought.

By approving the launch of another seven astronauts in a vehicle that he himself has called "fundamentally flawed", Mike Griffin has already waded into the same moral swamp that swallowed up the Japanese admirals and generals of 1944-45 who ordered pilots to fly suicide missions for a year after any rational hope of winning the Pacific War had vanished. He needs to turn around right now and wade back out again.

The right thing for those Japanese officials to do in July 1944 would have been to tell Emperor Hirohito: "We were wrong to start this war. Going on with it will only waste more money and kill more of our best and brightest youth for no purpose. We should stop fighting right now and take whatever deal the Allies will give us."

The right thing for Administrator Griffin to do in July 2005 would be to tell President Bush: "We were wrong to continue on with the Shuttle and the Station after the Cold War ended. Going on with them will only waste more money and kill more of our best and brightest youth for no purpose. We should stop manned launches until we have developed a spacecraft that is at least as safe as the B-17 was."

Appendix I


Loss rates for Allied aircraft in the European Theater in World War II compared to that of the Space Shuttle


USAAF loss figures from p.231 and p.285 of AMERICAN COMBAT PLANES (3rd edition, 1982) by Ray Wagner:

107 P-39s lost in30,547 sorties = 0.35%

   67 A-26s lost in  11,567 sorties = 0.58%
  380 B-25s lost in  63,177 sorties = 0.60%
191 Spitfiresin28,981 sorties = 0.66%

  265 A-20s lost in  39,492 sorties = 0.67%
3,077 P-47s lost in 423,435 sorties = 0.69%

  911 B-26s lost in 129,943 sorties = 0.70%

�� 25 P-61s lost in�� 3,367 sorties = 0.74%
177 A-36s lost in23,373 sorties = 0.76%

553 P-40s lost in67,059 sorties = 0.82%

�� 63 Beaufighters in 6,706 sorties = 0.94%

2,520 P-51s lost in 213,873 sorties = 1.18%

1,738 P-38s lost in 129,849 sorties = 1.34%

4,688 B-17s lost in 291,508 sorties = 1.61%
3,826 B-24s lost in 222,775 sorties = 1.72%


 2 Shuttles lost in     114 sorties = 1.75%

These numbers are "combat losses" which exclude "operational losses" (i.e. pilot error) and possibly aircraft scrapped due to heavy damage. Since neither of these events has happened (yet) in Shuttle operations I felt the "combat loss" numbers should be used.

One sees much higher loss rates quoted, but these apply to short periods of the war (such as the unescorted long-range strikes in 1943) or particular areas or units.

I took the ~80% survival rate for downed B-17 crews from THE SCHWEINFURT-REGENSBURG MISSION by Martin Middlebrook.  This was an unusually intense air battle on 17 August 1943 so the overall survival rate for the whole war was probably greater.

The RAF Bomber Command loss rates are much higher, possibly because they flew more in the early part of the war before the German defenses were weakened:

              Combat  Ops
              -----   -----
Mosquito      0.69% + 0.13%
Lancaster     2.20% + 0.16%
Wellington    2.29% + 0.72%
Halifax       2.28% + 0.24%
Boston (A-20) 2.61% + 0.25%
Whitley       3.22% + 1.43%
Stirling      3.39% + 0.32%
Blenheim      3.62% + 0.81%
Ventura       3.91% + 0.20%
Manchester    5.04% + 0.95%

(From THE BOMBER COMMAND WAR DIARIES by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, revised edition of 1996)




Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space advocate.


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