atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#488: Another busted shuttle.

Endeavor, as you all probably know already, has a huge stinking gouge in its heat shield, one that goes all the way to the airframe underneath:

(Pic shamelessly lifted from Steven Den Beste.)

I'm going to preface my comments with this: I sincerely hope all the people that will be coming home on Endeavor do indeed get home safely.

For the sake of completeness I wish to reiterate the fact that while FOD (foreign object damage) incidents occurred with startling regularity from the first flight of the system, they were not nearly this bad before NASA switched to the non-CFC, eco-friendly insulating foam.

This one, say some reports, was due to ice rather than foam. Has that ever happened before? Why did it happen this time?

Endeavor was the replacement for Challenger, which blew up due to stupid NASA bureaucrats insisting on launching the thing in temperatures outside its performance envelope.

Colombia broke up on re-entry because the politically-correct ozone-friendly non-CFC insulating foam gouged the shit out of the heat shield. There will be no replacement for Colombia.

Now, Endeavor is docked with the USS Boondoggle International Space Station, and some poor astro-schmuck is going to have to go out and patch the heat shield. That is if NASA personnel decide that it's better to risk two astronauts' lives than it is to risk losing another shuttle.

And then everyone involved will have to cross their fingers and hope and pray that the patch actually works as advertised. Because if it doesn't and Endeavor scatters itself across the American southwest like Colombia did, the shuttle fleet will probably be grounded, permanently, unless some President or another wises up and writes an executive order allowing NASA to use ozone-unfriendly products to insulate the shuttle's fuel tank.

Thinking about the shuttle for my little alternate-history story, I remembered how NASA sold the shuttle to Congress and America. Needless to say, the shuttle has exactly failed to live up to any of the promises NASA made.

It is not safer, cheaper, faster, better, or more reliable than the Saturn V, which is still the most powerful machine ever constructed by Man. It costs a billion dollars every time a shuttle flies. The main engines must be overhauled after each flight. The heat shield must be refurbished after each flight. It takes 20,000 engineers and technicians to take a just-flown shuttle and prepare it for its next flight, and it takes months or years to do so, rather than the weeks that NASA promised. The shuttle can carry 1/5 the payload of the Saturn V, and it costs more to fly it.

Think about that: the entire Saturn V was single-use, and it cost less in real dollars to fly.

The heaviest parts of the space station had to be boosted by the Russians because the shuttle can only lift 20 tons; the smaller bits required multiple shuttle flights (at $1 billion each) to accomplish. Contrast that with Skylab; a single Saturn V put Skylab into orbit, and the return on that investment was much greater than what we're getting from the ISS.

It's not safer: how many people died in Saturn Vs? Three astronauts were incinerated in a test accident, but that was on the launch pad, not in flight. Apollo 13 killed no one even though the command module suffered a catastrophic failure. But how many have died in shuttle accidents? Seven died when Challenger exploded; seven more died when Colombia came apart. Fourteen people.

The Saturn V didn't fly as much as the shuttle has, it's true, and it's possible (even probable) that there would have been in-flight deaths had it continued to be used. But NASA abandoned a proven system, completely mothballing it in order to get its eager hands on a totally new system which was designed from the top down, rather than the bottom up.

The last usable Saturn V became a lawn ornament:

NASA's budget was chopped into little tiny pieces during the Nixon years. It's what annoys me the most about Nixon--that, the EPA, and OSHA. Watergate? Pfft. That's peanuts compared to cutting NASA's funding and foisting OSHA and the EPA on us. The Nixon cuts cost us the moon; it's why we can't go back now, and won't be able to go back before the end of the next decade at the earliest.

But NASA was eager to get the shuttle, so eager that they came up with all sorts of reasons that the shuttle was vastly superior to the Saturn V...and all of those reasons turned out to be utter hogwash. The Saturn V--arguably the most successful launch platform NASA ever devised--was treated like a red-headed stepchild.

It's no accident that Buzz Aldrin's excellent SF novel Encounter With Tiber begins with a space shuttle crash. It sets up a situation where NASA must go back to using the technology that got us to the moon and back.

Take a look at the above picture of the Saturn V. The first and second stages are disposed of in flight; they re-enter Earth's atmosphere. The third stage makes it into orbit with everything ahead of it. The tapered shroud between the third stage and the command module is a cargo hold. On the Apollo missions, that area contained the LEM, the Lunar Excursion Module; so it's obviously a fairly large space--at least as big as the shuttle's payload bay. And if you subtract the mass of the command module, you'll come up with the net payload that could be boosted in that cargo bay.

But step back a second. What if you just want to send up some stuff?

The first and second stages are massive. And they will boost 100 tons of payload into low Earth orbit. 100 tons is thirty Hummer H2s. What kind of space station could NASA have built using Saturn Vs and spending the same amount of money they spent on shuttle flights and paying the Russians to boost the heavy parts?

I just don't know what else to say.

* * *

Part of the reason I don't know what else to say is that I went to work last night and I finally managed to work an entire shift. I felt like utter crap but I did it.

The fatigue of my night's exertions have finally caught up with me. Maybe I'll finish my diatribe later, and maybe when I wake up from a nap I'll have enough sense to stop ranting about something I've already ranted on and on about, at length and ad nauseum. Really.

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