An Honorable Retirement for the Shuttle

June 29th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

At Leonard David has a great news story on the upcoming shuttle launch with some interesting perspectives:

The soon-to-depart shuttle mission evokes a good news/bad news comeback from Joseph Pelton, a research professor with the Institute for Applied Space Research at George Washington University.

“The good news is that the shuttle is still a relatively safe experimental space vehicle with a 1-in-60 to 1-in-100 chance of a category one failure—loss of vehicle, loss of crew. The bad news is that after $2 billion in expenditures for the reflight effort—and now many years after the Columbia failure—critical objectives set by the CAIB have not been accomplished,” Pelton told

Pelton was lead investigator for Space Safety Report: Vulnerabilities and Risk Reduction In U.S. Human Space Flight Programs an independent assessment prepared and released last year by the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute (SACRI) of George Washington University.

Pelton singled out several remaining key issues: the stiffening of the shuttle outer hull; the ability perform repairs to the shuttle’s thermal protection system in space; and correction of the foam-shedding problem.

“The mantra that NASA developed after Columbia that said ‘find it, fix it and fly safely again’ rings hollow after so much time and money has been spent with such limited results,” Pelton explained.

NASA credibility and space funding

“In truth, the problems that NASA continues to experience with its shuttle and the International Space Station program—really the only reason the shuttle is still flying—goes back at least to the Challenger disaster in 1986,” Pelton said.

Two major national space commissions back then—one looking into the Challenger accident, the other delving into the future of the American space program—noted that the shuttle was indeed becoming “obsolescent” and that it had to be replaced by another vehicle within at least 15 years, or 2001, Pelton noted.

“Instead of developing alternative plans for the launch of International Space Station components in smaller and more modular parts at that time,” Pelton said, “NASA pushed ahead without developing a new vehicle, nor developing a back-up plan.

Now, not only is NASA’s credibility and space funding at risk, Pelton continued, but also at risk are the agency’s international partners that are engaged in the $100 billion station program. “The now ‘tar baby-like tandem’ of the ISS and the space shuttle has done great harm to space programs around the world.”

NASA has over-invested in both the shuttle and station initiatives, Pelton said, taking away money from programs that truly matter to the United States and indeed the world.

Never too late to start over

“The truth of the matter is that the shuttle program—an experimental program when designed in the 1970s—should have been grounded years ago. It should be replaced by better, safer, and more cost efficient programs. The development of private space vehicles that are human-rated, something that NASA is currently actively supporting, is clearly the right step forward,” Pelton advised.

Ultimately, it is not NASA that is at fault here, Pelton said, pointing to national leadership that has often overruled the space agency on where and how to spend their limited resources. It is never too late to start over, he said, and develop a NASA program that makes sense, balances expenditures, and set priorities that matter to the person in the street.

“The question is not whether NASA should be grounding the space shuttle and putting them in museums,” Pelton concluded, “but what are its backup plans and how can it restore balance to its overall space programs and give new focus to its various NASA centers?”

It is worth noting that under Pelton’s estimates of risk (1/60 to 1/100) this equates to a probability of a catastrophic accident at between 15% an 63%(!) over 16 remaining flights. Lets say this again — if Pelton’s risk estimates are correct there is a rather high probability of another lost shuttle.

Space historian Roger Launius asks, appropriately, about the option of allowing the Shuttle to have an “honorable retirement”:

Indeed, there is a lot riding on the next shuttle liftoff, beyond technology.

“This is one of the most significant missions of the shuttle program because of the policy implications that it presents,” said Roger Launius, Chair, Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Launius underscored the fact that Griffin has stated clearly that if NASA does not fly successfully this time it would mean the end of the program. “That, of course, begs the question [as to] what defines a successful mission?”

The last mission, for all of its challenges, was successful by most measures. It launched, flew, and returned safely; it delivered its supplies and equipment to the ISS; it undertook several safety tests and repairs.

That being the case, several questions percolate to the surface, Launius said.

“Is a level of success commensurate with the last mission sufficient to conclude that the program will continue? If that is not where the bar is set, is it higher or lower? I confess that I have no idea. I also confess that I hope and pray that this mission is a rousing success, by any standard that one might want to apply,” Launius told

Honorable retirement

Launius also senses there is something present with the forthcoming shuttle flight that he hasn’t necessarily experienced before.

“A sustained and underlying depression seems present among those working in the program, some of them for their entire careers,” Launius explained. “There is a sense of ending—as well as an ever-present perception of loss and failure—present among many members of the space shuttle team.”

Without question, Launius said, the space shuttle will be retired within something less than a decade, whether it is after this next mission or 2010 or sometime a bit later.

“As the space shuttle enters its home stretch, it should be remembered with both praises for its many accomplishments and criticisms for its shortcomings,” Launius suggested. “I am in favor of giving the shuttle an honorable retirement and to give a full measure of respect and thanks to those charged with its operations over the years for their efforts.”

In the process of retiring the space shuttle, “I hope NASA will ensure that the knowledge and expertise gained in the shuttle program is preserved and used for the future,” Launius concluded.

In my view NASA is acting like an aging boxer, not knowing when to say when. The end result is often not pretty.

One Response to “An Honorable Retirement for the Shuttle”

  1. Mark Bahner Says:

    I don’t see the Shuttle as NASA’s big problem. It’s the Space Station.

    Here are my off-the-cuff suggestions:

    1) Drop both the Shuttle and the Space Station. Immediately. Cold turkey.

    2) Shift any funds that would be spent on those programs to:

    a) Fusion-powered rockets (because chemical rockets can never lead very far),

    b) Space elevators (even if fusion-powered rockets don’t work, space elevators would give an extensive presence in space near earth),

    c) Cool robotic probes of Mars and Jupiter’s moons, especially looking for life…and if possible,

    d) Space-based telescopes.

    It may not be possible to do “d” without the Shuttle, or “b” or “a”. If so, well, that’s too bad. Earth-based telescopes are getting pretty amazing.

    One thing we need to recognize is that robotic probes are becoming more and more capable, while humans will always be put at tremendous risk by forces such as cosmic rays, solar flares, bone and muscle loss due to lack of gravity, mental fatigue from long-term confined living, etc. etc. etc. So in less than a decade, putting a $1 million robot on Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons will provide brainpower equivalent to a human brain…and without the need for scarce items like oxygen, water, food, and warmth.