Space Shuttle Challenger liftoff

Pixar’s restaurant critic Anton Ego noted that in many ways, the work of a critic is easy. “We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

The Space Shuttle has been the target of negative criticism for a long while. Some of that criticism is fair and valid. There’s no doubt that the Shuttle failed to live up to many of its original goals. Some of it is not fair or valid: the claim that the Shuttle was more dangerous than capsules like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, for example.

Rational people might have expected the criticism to abate after 2004, when President George W. Bush declared the Shuttle program to be a dead horse. That did not happen. Instead, Shuttle bashing became more vehement as the end of the program drew near. It continues still to this day.

Much of the criticism is politically motivated. Many critics contend that the Shuttle’s record proves the folly of trying to build a reusable launch vehicle in the future. In their view, expendable rockets and capsules are the only way man was meant to go into space. That criticism is unfair for two reasons. First, the Shuttle was not a fully reusable launch vehicle. It was a hybrid of reusable and expendable components, and most of its failures can be linked directly to the expendable parts of the system. Second, the Shuttle accomplished far more in its lifetime than the critics would have us believe.

First, the Shuttle carried more people into space than any other launch system. Of the 528 human beings who have gone into space, 355 flew on the Shuttle. More than two out of three. During its lifetime, the Shuttle carried ten times as many astronauts as Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo combined.

Critics have stated that the Shuttle killed more astronauts than any previous US launch system. That is true only because the Shuttle carried more astronauts. Apollo killed three astronauts on the pad before the first flight and nearly killed three more on Apollo 13. Mercury and Gemini never killed an astronaut because they did not fly long enough for someone’s number to come up. There were close calls in both programs.

Because of the Shuttle, we have an extensive database on Space Adaptation Syndrome and other aspects of space medicine. We also have a trained, experienced astronaut corps, many of whom will be tapped for future NASA and commercial space programs.

The Shuttle program also included the first minority and female astronauts. The inclusion of women in Shuttle crews required the development of zero-g toilet facilities that could accommodate both sexes. It also provided the first physiological data, outside of Russia, on how women react to spaceflight.

This data is an essential step toward space settlement. The establishment of a permanent settlement in space will require both sexes and family units to establish a viable community that can sustain itself for more than a single generation. Of the 56 women who have flown in space, 48 flew on the Shuttle. Anyone planning a future space settlement will depend on Shuttle data.

Space Shuttle Atlantis in orbit above ocean reef

The Shuttle program demonstrated the utility of humans in space as never before. A Shuttle crew conducted the first on-orbit satellite repair with the Solar Maximum Mission in 1984. Later crews serviced the Hubble Space Telescope on multiple occasions. The Hubble was launched with defective optics. Without intervention by Shuttle astronauts, much of the Hubble’s science ability would have been lost.

The Shuttle also demonstrated the ability of astronauts to repair commercial satellites on orbit and to capture malfunctioning satellites and return them to Earth for more extensive repairs. The Westar 6 and Palapa B2 satellites were returned to Earth, refurbished (and, in the case of Westar, resold), and later returned to space. Although this was not a cost-effective use of the Space Shuttle, it does point to a viable application for lower-cost fully-reusable vehicles in the future.

Another Shuttle crew conducted the first in-space refueling demonstration during an EVA in 1984. In-space refueling from orbital propellent depots is a technique being considered for future missions beyond Low Earth Orbit. On-orbit refueling is a potentially game-changing technology which NASA still considers to be high risk. Yet, a Shuttle crew successfully demonstrated satellite refueling techniques almost 30 years ago.

Shuttle crews also conducted numerous experiments in space manufacturing. In the early days of the program, before the Challenger accident, industry researchers were even allowed to fly with their experiments as payload operators. Charles Walker, from McDonnell Douglas, flew aboard the Shuttle three times to operate a pharmaceutical manufacturing experiment called Electrophoresis Operations in Space, which he developed in cooperation with Ortho Pharmaceutical. This was the first time a researcher was able to get hands-on access to an experiment in space, rather than relying on NASA astronauts.

The first products to be manufactured in space for sale on Earth were made aboard the Shuttle. Monodisperse latex microspheres, or space beads, are small plastic spheres of highly uniform size. The Shuttle’s microgravity environment allowed researchers to produce microspheres in a range of sizes that are not possible on Earth. These beads have a number of uses including calibrating microscopes and other scientific instruments. Space beads were marketed through, and are still available from, the National Institute of Science and Technology (formerly known as the National Bureau of Standards).

The Shuttle also played a key role in building the International Space Station. In the process, it carried out an amazing large-scale demonstration of space construction that forever put to rest fears about the so-called “wall of EVA.”

Ironically, some of the most vehement Shuttle bashers are big fans of ISS, which they believe will evolve into “Alpha Town” and serve as a market for new commercial launch systems. But without the Shuttle, ISS would not exist.

Finally, the Space Shuttle played an unrecognized role in helping to end the Cold War. When the Shuttle began servicing satellites in orbit, the US military was watching, and so were the Soviets. Soviet diplomats and news outlets began to protest that the Space Shuttle was an ASAT weapon, which could kidnap or interfere with Soviet satellites. Most people in the West mistook these protests for propaganda ploys. In fact, they were real concerns among Soviet leaders (although not realistic concerns, given the Shuttle’s limitations). Those fears were likely encouraged by US intelligence agencies. To counter the perceived Shuttle “threat,” the Soviet Union began work on an expensive Shuttle clone, called Buran. This program contributed to the overburden on the Soviet economy that brought about the fall of Communism.

Does this mean NASA’s decision to build the Space Shuttle in the 1970’s was the right one? Not necessarily. The Shuttle was an expensive system, which failed in its primary goal of reducing he cost of access to space. The money spent on the Shuttle could have been used to fund a great many other projects, which might have achieved better results. But that does not take anything away from what the Shuttle did accomplish.

The Shuttle may not have been the best machine that could have been built at the time, but it was the machine that NASA could build, within the political system of the time. Politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect.

Space Shuttle Challenger in orbit

Written by Astro1 on January 18th, 2013 , Space History

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    Kevin T. Harrington commented

    Nicely done article, realistic coverage of all concerns and triumphs of the shuttle program. I am always annoyed when I hear of how dangerous the shuttle was, especially since it was used as a reason to cancel the program. Over the same period of time over twenty drivers lost their lives at Daytona International Speedway to sell beer and boner pills and yet nary a peep from anyone. Says more about us as a nation than the Shuttle or Nascar I guess…

    January 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm