Monday, July 25, 2011

The End of US Manned Spaceflight and the Failure of American Vision

Although I am saddened by the small-mindedness of our politicians in ending (for now) manned spaceflight and apparently ceding the future of it to the Chinese, it's important to remember that, in the final analysis, the Space Shuttle was a flop.
The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the project was doomed for a variety of reasons, including the challenging reusable spaceplane design and the huge range of often conflicting demands on the craft. Tellingly, the U.S. space program is abandoning spaceplanes and going back to Apollo-style rockets. The Russians have always relied on cheaper and more reliable disposable rockets; China plans to do the same. But hindsight is 20/20, and there may well be no way NASA could have known that the shuttle would flop back in the ‘70s when it was being planned and built, or possibly even while it was flying in the early ‘80s, before its bubble of innocence was pricked by disaster. But it would soon become clear to anyone that the shuttle program was deeply troubled—at least, to anyone who bothered to look.
Americans have been flying in space since before I was born, but I never thought I'd see the day that that would draw to a close.  But with small-minded Conservatives like George Lightbourn dominating our political discourse saying things like
we are emerging from an era where political leaders believe no problem is too complex or too costly for government to address. Walker made it possible to understand the fiscal realities, and limitations, of government.
it's hardly surprising that America can't get big things done anymore.

Walker made it possible, along with the cadre of Tea Party know-nothings, to believe that America has run her course.  She can no longer do big things like fly to the moon or build the Hoover Dam.  We have reached our limits.  We can do no more.  No, America is not a place where big things get done anymore.  American Exceptionalism is not in their lexicon.

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