NASA spaceflight technology continues to tread water
Posted by sanityinjection on July 16, 2009
The ironic complement to the great success of the expansion of the International Space Station is the total failure of NASA to improve our technology for getting into space in the first place.
I was reminded of this reading about the latest space shuttle launch today. AP reports that during the launch, several pieces of insulating foam broke off of the shuttle’s fuel tank and struck the shuttle during take-off.
If that sounds familiar, it should. It was precisely this problem that caused the loss of space shuttle Columbia during re-entry in 2003. After that disaster, shuttle flights were halted for over two years because NASA couldn’t figure out how to solve the problem. Eventually, they removed some of the foam structures most prone to coming off, and added equipment to the shuttle that would allow astronauts to go out and fix any surface damage caused during lift-off before re-entry. But they are still using the same foam, and it’s still damaging the shuttle. With every minute of space time of critical mission value, having to waste hours of time examining and possibly repairing the shuttle in space is a little like having to fix cracks in a pool every time you want to use it.
Shuttle flights are planned to continue until next year when the space station is completed. At that point, NASA will transition to a new generation of launch vehicles. But the first launch of the new Orion spacecraft isn’t scheduled until 2015. Worse, the Orion itself is essentially a throwback to the old Apollo rocket-launched space capsule – albeit with modern computers and solar panels. In 2015, instead of coasting to a civilized landing, the first Orion astronauts will be splashing down in the ocean just as Apollo did decades ago.
I guess I fail to see the point of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to essentially go backwards. The space shuttles, it seems to me, could continue to serve if the insulation issue could be resolved. Building two or three new shuttles would surely be more cost-effective and just as useful for NASA’s future explorations. Conversely, if the space shuttle technology is no longer sufficient, shouldn’t we be coming up with something better rather than falling back on antiquated designs and concepts?