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Sexappeal, the space shuttle, and end of an era

Posted by malcolmdavis on July 22, 2011 at 10:07 PM PDT

There are many that have a romantic view of NASA and the space shuttle.

Many don’t understand that the space shuttle was a costly mistake.

There is a myth that the space shuttle was a cost effective method into space.  The decades old myth kept the space shuttle program alive.  The Saturn V program could care larger payloads, higher, for less cost.  In today’s dollars, Saturn V low earth orbit (LEO) cost is about $4K US dollars per-pound, compared to the roughly $18K per-pound for the shuttle.   (Insane that the US would pay 4x times the cost.)  NASA could have done twice as much with half the cost with a single Saturn V launch every year for the past 30 years. 

The space shuttle also has limited mission scope.  The shuttle was originally developed for LEO orbit activity.  The shuttle could never take people to the moon, or really be effective for geocentric orbit missions.

While the Saturn V never had a failure, the shuttle had several catastrophic failures.  There was a 4% chance of failure on every shuttle mission.  NASA knew after Challenger that there would be another disaster the shuttle program continued.  Over a decade later there was Columbia tragedy. 


The entire concept of Space Station could never be achieved (material research in micro-gravity).  There were people in Space Station screwing up the micro-gravity; hence the material research could not be accomplished as planned.  (NASA knew this in the early 90’s and went ahead with the program anyway, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars.)

Space shuttle & Space Station are examples of a misinformed public.   There are many ex-NASA engineers and scientists that complain about the wasted resources that could have gone toward better scientific objectives.

The Bush administration took the waste to an entire new level with the Man on Mars concept.  Scientists & Engineers were so outraged by the waste, that for the first time they wrote a letter supporting the opposing candidate in presidential campaign in 2004. 

Lesson learned

* The space shuttle was sold on sexappeal rather than practicality.  Many times sexappeal is what sells product, something that our marketing team keeps telling development. 

* NASA management hid the facts about the issues and limitations from congress and public.  I’ve seen many software developers do the same thing with communicating with management or customers.

 Bottom line, not all that glitters is gold

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<p>I think that this is just a perspective and you're ...

I think that this is just a perspective and you're trashing the thing too quickly. Basically, in technologies such as the Shuttle there are two aspects: a very practical, short term one (send useful stuff into orbit) and a middle-long term one (do applied research, which can have unpredictable fallbacks). Sure, the fact that you pay 4x money for doing the same task is a short term aspect, while things such as the Man on Mars are mostly in the second field, of course (*). But I'm outraged that there are *scientists* complaining against a research programme. With this approach, one could question which is the practical fallback of discovering the God particle at CERN, where the UE (and not only) is spending big tons of money as well. There's always somebody saying "those money could be spent for something more useful". This is a legitimate and compulsory political argument since in the end the taxpayers' money are a finite quantity and you have to give prorities. But a *scientist* is not a politician and I expect that (s)he understands the value of research in all fields. BTW, I bet that those scientists against Man on Mars are just thinking of their own programmes as a better spending target; OTOH I'd say that there are other scientists hoping that Man on Mars goes on, because they could be involved.

(*) Many people adviced Isabella I of Castile against funding the Colombo's expedition. Fortunately she was of a different idea and Spain gained lots of money for centuries out of that. The american continent and its resources were completely out of everybody's horizon. Who knows what we can do with Mars? If I'm not wrong Obama is not against the Man on Mars programme, even though he has to face with budget problems.

<p>Anything in Science and Engineering must meet practical ...

Anything in Science and Engineering must meet practical economics. (One of my engineering courses in college was engineering economics)

The Shuttle was sold on being a cost effective way into space, it was not.  NASA handling of the Shuttle program caused the lost of respect by many in Science and Engineering.

>> "But I'm outraged that there are *scientists* complaining against a research programm"
Scientists are NOT complaining about money being spent on research, but they are complaining about where the research money is being applied. 

There are numerous constructive projects *scientists* would prefer.  Should congress listen to the scientists asking for money, or a President with a political agenda?

Most scientists & engineers agree that the Man on Mars program is a waste.  They asked the president Obama to cancel the program.

As someone that worked at NASA, and severed on the board of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the public's perception of NASA and the reality, are 2 different things.