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column: Replacing NASA's Space Pickup


It doesn’t get brought up a lot in polite conversation, but many pundits considered the space shuttle a piece of crap.
A very cool piece of crap, but still.
It was designed by committee to be a fully reusable spaceship, but it finally emerged only partially reusable, took a tremendous amount of servicing between missions, and was more expensive to use than the one-shot spacecraft it replaced. The ship’s 33,000 fragile heat tiles had to be applied, by hand, individually.
Sounds like a government operation.
The shuttle, a pickup truck that trundled small payloads into orbit, was a technically bigger challenge than the Apollo Moon program, which relied on simply throwing away parts after they finished their high stress jobs. As it went through delays and cost overruns, many predicted the shuttle would never make it off the ground.
I miss it already.
Oh, don’t get me wrong; we could have done better. Still, despite the limitations and costs, the space shuttle program overall was a success, especially after how fouled up it was at the start. The TV show Mythbusters once demonstrated that – ahem – poop can be polished, and I mean that literally. They needn’t have bothered: The people of NASA proved it figuratively, by taking an embarrassing boondoggle and producing real benefits.
Of course, it was still a tricked-out pickup. At thirty years old it had to be replaced, just as you would replace any aging, critical equipment. I mean, my iPod Nano carried more computer power than the first shuttle, and all I can do is listen to Neil Diamond songs.
So we say goodbye to the space shuttle, and a prayer for those who died in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and then … what?
Well, we could just not go into space anymore. After all, humanity has never shown any great interest in exploration, knowledge, or scientific advancement. We’re not likely to get any advantage out of new technology or discovery. It’s not like people have ever taken risks in an attempt to turn the great unknown into the known. Right?
One problem today is that we seem to have lost that sense of exploration, of going forward. When I was a kid we traveled to the Moon. Then, as if the water was just too cold, we pulled the tip of our big toe away from the edge of deep space and settled for making little circles around the planet, instead.
What’s left to explore? Space, the bottom of the ocean, and the workings of the mind; and the more I find out about how human minds work, the more I want to drown myself in the bottom of the ocean.
Mankind craves adventure and knowledge, as much as it craves the more base things like food, air, and seeing people make fools of themselves. On a related note, I’m okay with shooting the Kardashians to the Moon, one way ticket.
Another thing we could do is rely on the Russian space program to get our astronauts into space, where they can be on the International Space Station and … well, that’s about it.
I’m cool with the ISS; I just think it should be the beginning, rather than the end. I also like the idea of all the countries of the world working together toward exploring space. It could divide the cost, multiply the innovation, and promote that whole peace and understanding thing.
I also believe in the idea of dismantling our armed forces, under the assumption that other nations will no longer feel threatened and will beat their AK-47’s into plowshares. But that ain’t gonna happen, either. Have you ever tried to plow with an assault rifle?
The reality is that some nations pursuing space programs still see it as a race for the “high ground”, and look to domination of space as just another form of domination. Others won’t be in it for dominance, but won’t be exactly stable and dependable, either. Best to include them as much as possible, but maintain the ability to go it on our own.
But go where on our own? The Moon? An Asteroid? Uranus? (Oh, come on, I had to say it. It’s almost tradition, now.)
The next destination has become, like everything else, a political football. Add to that US finances being the way they are (which is to say, they aren’t), and a reasonable argument could be made for temporarily shutting down the manned space program completely.
With America broke and bleeding red, there can be no sacred cows – not even my own personal sacred cow, NASA. So, while I want to see a man (or woman – Chloe Kardashian?) on Mars, I believe we should delay that and send our next manned mission to an asteroid.
First, it might be possible someday to mine asteroids for materials needed on Earth. Salt, oil, non-fructose corn syrup, stuff like that. There’s little in the way of a gravity well on asteroids, so it would be possible to get stuff back at a cost that’s only way too high, rather than insanely high; researching how to do it now might bear fruit later. Assuming we find fruit there.
Second, Mars and the Moon are highly unlikely to break out of their orbits and slam into Earth, while smaller bodies do it on a regular basis. It’s like I always say: Big dogs look dangerous, but it’s the little ankle biters that will come out of nowhere.
Figuring out how to change to course of an asteroid in advance might save us from losing, say, Southern California …okay, bad example.
Third, getting to a small body would be good practice toward our next step. We must go into space, if for no other reason than to escape two

year election cycles. I proudly volunteer to go.
As long as I don’t have to take a Kardashian.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 3rd, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC)
Ah, those heady days when we actually thought that we were going to boldly go. We'll have to keep some kind of space mission going. Otherwise, who's going to maintain all the satellites that give us 350 channels of infomercials?
Aug. 4th, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC)
That's pretty important to some people! I worry more about the weather and military satellites, and I'm also a big fan of research satellites. However, many satellite owners say it's cheaper to shoot a new one into space than to salvage an old one.
Aug. 3rd, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
Hey Mark
As a Floridian who feels keenly the lost of the shuttle program I feel compelled to comment concerning it's continued viability.

Actually, according to Nasa engineers-and I realize they're hardly an unbiased group but I'm sure this can be found online somewhere- each shuttle was originally built to fly 100 missions. That makes our pick-up truck hardly over the hill, no matter what Washington politicians would have us believe.

Atlantis was decommissioned after flying a little over 1/3 that amount, so you could almost say that our nation's pick-up truck had just been broken in really well. Sort of like my husband's '00 Dodge Ram. It's not the latest and greatest, but it still starts every morning and takes him where he needs to go. Not to mention a new truck's cost.

Another thing I found interesting was that during the tear-out of the exploding door/hatch packets-no need for those in a museum setting of course- it was said that the deep inside of Discovery was utterly pristine- no wear and tear showing at all.

Lord knows-along with the rest of us-that those damn tiles are a pita, but we definitely could-and should- have held out at least long enough to have something else in the wings instead of throwing thousands of highly trained people-not to mention the small businesses in the vicinity- out in the cold in a bad economy, while relegating our only pick-up to the junk yard leaving us to hitch a ride with the neighbors every single time we need to go out.

I completely agree with you on the asteroid point(personally I find them fascinating too) but it's going to be awfully tough to visit them when the neighbors are going in the opposite direction.

Aug. 4th, 2011 03:59 pm (UTC)
"long enough to have something else in the wings instead."

There's the critical thing. There are differing views about the shuttle that all have some amount of truth in them, but how horrible is it that not only do we no longer have any form of manned space program, but that we're taking all this knowledge and experience and dumping it overboard? I see absolutely no reason why either the shuttle couldn't have been continued, or some other transport made ready by now -- except politics.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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