Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dump the Space Shuttle

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." That’s the alleged engineering maxim that, per the NYTimes, was the cause of the space shuttle’s current woes. Instead of coming up with a radical new alternative to the foam fuel tank cover, NASA engineers took a piecemeal approach to solving the problem, stuck with the foam, and here they are in a mess with the shuttle in space and possible damage.

Well, maybe, but it’s also plausible that, short of a radical shuttle redesign, there was no good solution. Or that the shuttle is so complex that introducing a radical fix was likely to break something else. There’s a good reason that engineers working on these kind of critical projects tend to take the conservative approach. I think we can all intuitively understand why it’s not a good idea to build a bridge with a completely new mechanical structure. Would you want to drive your car over that bridge?

It’s axiomatic that there will always be problems introduced when you try to fix an engineering construct of sufficient complexity. The article wants us to believe that NASA could have done something differently and avoided this latest shuttle fiasco. But in fact the real answer is probably in the last paragraph of this article. The space shuttle, as currently conceived, is an untenable work of engineering. The whole design is flawed, overly complex, and unwieldy. We know that the Russians have been successfully sending men to space and to their space station with a much simpler and cheaper design. Several commercial companies that have been formed to develop much cheaper space planes. There is clearly a large gap between what could be done with a new shuttle design, and what we’re stuck with now.

It’s time for a fresh start with the shuttle. It’s time to recognize that the incremental value of sending yet another shuttle of this type into space is virtually nil. Checking how Velveeta melts in zero gravity is not all that important. Checking the effect of statin drugs on the blood pressure of orbiting mice is not going to save mankind. The shuttle is now an old design. Certain things were learned from it. Let’s take a break from it, decide what we want in a next-generation shuttle, and, if something truly interesting can be outlined, perhaps we should go ahead and build it. But enough of these shuttle flights. They’ve exhausted their usefullness, it’s time to retire them. Let’s declare victory and move on.

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