Shuttle is too costly, dangerous

Shuttle is too costly, dangerous
The space shuttle Discovery is in orbit, enroute to a rendezvous with the International Space Station. NASA happily reported after the July 4 launch that everything appears to have gone well. This launch is different than the one that took place a year ago. Despite modifications to the shuttle�s fuel tank, it was still scattering foam, forcing NASA to halt further flights of the vehicle until now while it tackled the spacecraft�s irksome tendency to shed and rain debris on the orbiter during takeoff.

There had understandably been a great deal of anticipation during the countdown to the planned blast off. The February 2003 tragedy with Columbia is still fresh in our memories, after all.

There has been much talk of all of the improvements made to the spacecraft, of how NASA is determined to change its bureaucratic culture and not repeat the mistakes that have led to the loss of not one, but two shuttles.

What no one seems to be talking about is this: if we didn�t have an international space station currently in orbit (and in need of the shuttle�s regular delivery services) would we be attempting to get Discovery into space?

In fact, isn�t now the time to mothball the shuttles, which are scheduled to be put out of service in about five years, before more astronauts are lost?

If money is no object, as it usually isn�t in space launches, we can pay more for reusable shuttles than for throw-away rockets if we have to. But the question never answered is � what will the shuttle do that rockets couldn�t do?

It can�t launch more than they can; sometimes, it can�t launch as much. This past week is a good example of that; two attempts to get off the launch pad had to be scrubbed last weekend because of weather.

A Saturn V rocket can carry up to 250,000 pounds; the shuttle struggles to break into orbit with a maximum payload of 65,000 pounds. The shuttle can�t bring back satellites. It can�t keep a space station aloft even a fraction as long as Skylab stayed up there. It has no scientific value. It just has men and women in the front seats � and an enormous amount of weight and equipment devoted to bringing them, and an empty cargo bay, back in one piece.

There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle cannot. A rocket can be permitted to fail.

We�ve all seen the films of NASA�s early, unmanned launches, where rockets often shuddered and tipped over before they even left the pad.

One of the old throw-away jobs could go haywire, and spiral down into the ocean off the Bahamas, and everybody would feel miserable and millions would be wasted and everybody would go back to work.

The engineers would, naturally, be disappointed that the vehicle was lost, but they never expected it to come back. The prospect makes the old rockets seem kind of nice.

Instead of risking another tragic or humiliating setback Saturday, NASA should abandon the shuttle and focus on more productive missions.

The shuttle was intended as a reusable spacecraft that would require only routine maintenance between missions. But NASA has been working on the foam problem for more than three years. It�s becoming increasingly clear that the issue with the shuttle isn�t age but a design flaw.

In fairness, the officials who advised against Saturday�s launch � the agency�s chief engineer and its chief safety officer � say there isn�t much risk that the shuttle�s crew could die. If debris punctures Discovery�s skin, its astronauts can abandon the craft for the International Space Station.

Retiring the space shuttle now wouldn�t spell the end of manned space flight for NASA. The space agency in September unveiled its blueprint for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, an Apollo-like capsule that NASA hopes will fly by 2012 and take astronauts to the moon by 2018. A six-year gap in manned space flights shouldn�t be discouraging. In the meantime, the space agency could focus on more science-rich, unmanned missions that could be better funded without the costly shuttle program.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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