The Space Shuttle – An honest appraisal

The NASA Space Shuttle program was the successor to the Apollo series of manned space and Lunar visitation missions. NASA needed a new overarching mission, after achieving the objective set out by President John F Kennedy in 1962. They had a large organization to keep busy.

The Space Shuttle was the next generation dream. It was promised to be a fully re-usable orbiter, capable of rapid turnaround missions to Low Earth Orbit for a modest cost. The planning assumptions were all based around a very high mission rate and total number of missions.  One assumption was that the new post-Apollo program would need a total of 546 shuttle launches in 1975-85 alone. This number looks ludicrous today, but reflects the level of optimism about the capability that re-usable orbiters would provide. A high mission number was also financially convenient because R&D and maintenance costs then look a lot smaller as a percentage of mission costs.

The program in its final form was simply the most politically palatable post-Apollo program that gained the most political support for continued funding. The configuration, with the external boosters, was largely imposed by NASA senior leaders and political supporters, and was not the result of a bottom-up engineering analysis. 

As a result of the defective processes that led to its initiation, the program was plagued by delays, and massive cost inflation. The original commercial targets for the shuttle program were never met. In the final event, the cost of the program was such that each shuttle launch cost over $1bn if all of the total program costs were amortized by the number of missions. A more charitable interpretation is that the launch cost was around $245m per mission, if you accounted for all of the then-current costs of NASA and third parties.

That massive cost inflation destroyed parts of the business plan for the Shuttle program. One part of the business plan was for the Shuttle to launch commercial satellites into geostationary orbit. This was never a viable business, as the low frequency of shuttle launches, and the high cost of each mission, meant that the shuttle was not competitive with rocket-based satellite delivery organizations. Satellites were launched from the shuttle, but they were almost all US military satellites, and that business stream disappeared after the Challenger accident when the military walked away from using the Shuttle and reverted to using expendable rocket launchers.

The biggest issues with the program were the public failures of the Challenger and Columbia missions, resulting in the deaths of all of the crew members. The underlying issue with both failures was not the program itself or the technologies, but appallingly lax safety processes inside NASA and across contractors and third parties, the result of an intensely political communication environment where the main objective was for nobody to bring Bad News to the table. Upward message dilution was baked into the culture of all of the corporations and government bodies collaborating on the program. Both mission failures resulted in lengthy pauses in shuttle launches as NASA attempted to rectify the issues that contributed to the accidents.

Challenger was launched, with NASA under intense political pressure for a quick launch, on a morning where overnight temperatures had fallen below safe minimums to preserve the integrity of the booster rocket o-rings, which were not designed to function in sub-zero temperatures. Columbia was allowed to continue its mission, up to the failed re-entry, despite clear visual evidence of damage to the leading edge of one of its wings during the launch. NASA assumed “it will be OK” despite having access to the technology to examine the wing leading edge from the ground. Rescuing the crew via an emergency rescue mission with another orbiter was possible, but NASA simply blew off the detail examination and everybody crossed their fingers. We know how that turned out.

Richard Feynman, in his book “What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?”, recounts his time on the Challenger investigation commission. Feynman, being a lot smarter than the average guy, realized early on that NASA and contractors would do everything it could to steer, and where necessary, shut down detail investigation. So he persistently and consistently talked to engineers, including the teams responsible for the design of the Shuttle’s rocket engines, and engineers responsible for the creation of the booster rockets. What he found were two fundamental issues:

  1. The shuttle propulsion system was not created the way that engineers would like to create a system to assure operation and reliability. It was designed top-down to meet a “clean sheet of paper” set of objectives, and supposedly to get the Shuttle program up and running quickly, and was not assembled bottom-up from proven components. As a result, when numerous reliability issues appeared during testing, extensive bottom-up re-designs were required to address them, and some of the issues were never addressed
  2. There had been numerous design and reliability issues from the very beginning with the sealing of the booster rocket casings, and the problems had never been fully solved by Morton Thiokol

The Shuttle program ended in 2011, with a final total of 105 missions having been flown, for the loss of 2 out of 5 orbiters. The total was a fraction of the original target, achieved over a much longer time period for a massively inflated cost.

While the Shuttle program was a great source of publicity, advanced key aspects of rocket engine technology, and has created iconic images and publicity (good and bad), the facts are that the program never met any of its original goals, and it arguably diverted NASA resources and focus from activities that were probably safer and more cost-effective, such as robotic and unmanned missions within the Solar System.


American Airlines screws us over baggage transit

American Airlines is rapidly sinking down our list of airlines for leisure flying.
We checked 2 bags into DFW on Monday for the trip to Belize
When we arrived in Belize city, only one bag came off the conveyor
So once it was clear from talking to the baggage handlers that there were no more bags to be unloaded it was off to the AA office.
It soon became clear that no, our bag had not made it onto the flight. It was still at the departure gate in DFW. There was no reason advanced for the bag having not made it onto the flight However, we were not alone, a whole bunch of people were also in line for the same reason.
AA said that they would send it to BZE via MIA overnight,, which meant it would arrive at BZE at lunchtime today.
They said they would send it down to Plancencia later in the day via one of the regional airlines (Maya AIr or Tropic Aiir) that flies to Placencia.
This is our biggest bag, containing our snorkelling gear and most of mary’s shoes.
As of now, we still do not have the bag. It is still at BZE, awaiting space on a feeder fight. Missing bags can only be sent down on a space available basis, and the bag only cleared customs at 4.45 pm today, which was too late for a flight with baggage space.
So we will not get the bag until tomorrow at the earliest.
This is not good. We have had to shuffle trips around because of this. The AA agent at BZE told us that there are nearly 100 bags that have been lost that they are trying to route to the owners.
I am pissed. This was a stateside SNAFU in DFW and now our Chrstmas is being impacted.

UPDATE – The bag finally came down from BZE to Placencia on the 11.30 TropicAir flight and we picked it up from the airport at 12.30 CST. Only 2 days later than we should have taken possession of it…

UPDATE 2 – To add insult to injury, our medium sized bag came off the conveyor at DFW on the return leg missing a wheel. The missing wheel is on the wrong side, so it makes the baggage non-wheelable in any orientation i.e. unusable. GRRRRRR.


A quick word about drones

The word “drone” is being used in a debatably incorrect way when people talk about quadcopter RC devices. Those devices are merely, for operational purposes, updated versions of RC aircraft that have been flown by hobbyists for decades. Hobbyists have flown RC helicopters with hovering ability for a long time. They are nowhere near as sophisticated or lightweight as the current generation of quadcopter devices, but they perform the same function.
The paranoia (and yes it is mostly paranoia) about the new generation of RC air devices is fuelled by the use of the word “drone” to describe them. That word has acquired a very sinister meaning because of its use to describe larger, long-loiter military devices used elsewhere in the world to engage in surveillance and targeted assassination.
A quadcopter RC device is not a “drone” in any military or malevolent sense. They cannot carry any military payload. They have extremely limited personal surveillance capability, since they mostly contain GoPro or other cameras that have next to no zoom ability. They also have a flight time of 20 minutes at best, and require line of sight to the operator for reliable flight control.
Do quadcopters have the ability to cause problems? Well yes. RC aircraft and helicopters have the same ability, but there are regulations applicable to all of these devices under FAA rules. If a quadcopter strays into controlled airspace, that will be a safety issue, and the FAA has the ability to sanction the operator and possibly have him charged with serious offenses.
Quadcopters are regarded at this time by the FAA as aicraft, subject to many of the same rules and protections as aircraft. Hence people are being arrested and hit with charges for trying to shoot quadcopters down. The airspace above your property does not belong to you. It never has. If you don’t like that you need to campaign for a change in the Constitution. (BTW, there is no right to individual privacy defined in the Constitution, so if somebody threatening quadcopter vandalism says “It’s my constitutional right”, you can dismiss that claim. It’s horsepuckey).
The paranoia and unconstitutional attempts at restraint by local districts and counties in the USA are making the US into a laughing stock worldwide, and the results are going to be a lack of aerial device development in the USA, and loss of commercial opportunities.

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