Devon Island Expedition

Devon Island Expedition
This blog features educational updates on my Devon Island Expedition of July 14-20, 2007. Other sites:,

Sunday, March 7, 2010

End of an Era

A few weeks ago, I was at the Kennedy Space Center, reporting on the last scheduled night launch of the Space Shuttle program. Endeavour lifted off into the false dawn that she herself created, and rose majestically into the sky, lighting up the wispy cloud layer that was creeping onshore. It was one of the most beautiful space launches I have ever experienced. There are only four more Shuttle launches, before the end of Her Era.

Space Shuttle was born out of this nation, coming off of the highs of Apollo, Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Her proponents promised inexpensive, regular access to space, aboard this then modern-day “space truck.” These were lofty goals to be sure, that we never got close to reaching. Instead of fifty-odd flights a year, the best we did was just south of ten. Instead of inexpensive flights, each costs somewhere north of five hundred million dollars.

Nevertheless, Space Shuttle is a magnificent flying machine, unparalleled in the history of human spaceflight. The Soviet Union tried to copy her, and failed; their program consisted of exactly one unmanned flight, which ended after one orbit. No other program featured an operational vehicle, which launched into orbit on her own power, loitered in space for two-plus weeks, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and landed on a conventional runway like an airplane. No other manned vehicle could even come close to carrying her nearly-sixty-thousand-pound payload capacity. There has never been another operational reusable space system, ever.

When she is put out to pasture, we will have nothing new with which to replace her; after she is decommissioned, the United States will have no independent means to launch astronauts into space. It is unclear when we will have a new crew vehicle, the only thing certain is that we will have a capability gap that will last at least five years, and probably longer.

I was a member of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by aerospace veteran, Norm Augustine. Appointed by the White House, we worked last summer to evaluate plans and formulate options for the new Administration. It was a difficult conclusion to accept, but we found nothing, not even practically unlimited funding, would minimize the gap between the Space Shuttle and the next US crewed space vehicle, except for extending Shuttle operational life. So then, why is the Space Shuttle going away? Three reasons: She is too expensive to operate, there is a higher risk involved in Shuttle flights than we originally calculated, and because of the last reason, it is politically untenable.

The Augustine Committee, as we came to be known, put forward the option to spur development of commercial, crewed Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access. Why does this make any sense? Commercial may not reduce the gap, but it may offer a better long-term solution for LEO access, since by definition, commercial solutions need to be cost effective, and government systems do not. The technology to get astronauts to LEO has existed for nearly fifty years. The trick is to find a safe, yet commercially viable structure. I didn’t foresee the recent announcement of the cancellation of the NASA Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV); the commercial option was for LEO access, not exploration. I expected that CEV, along with either a heavy lift vehicle, or a man-rated expendable launcher would serve as a complimentary system to commercial LEO efforts. Details of the US plans for the future of NASA human spaceflight remain to be revealed, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Sometimes it takes dramatic change, even temporary chaos, to affect the possibility of a quantum jump in improvement.

I flew on three Space Shuttles: Columbia, Endeavour and Discovery. This is a bold, new world, but Shuttle will always have a special place in my heart. I will remember them fondly, and I will miss them.

Leroy Chiao


Daniel Fischer said...

In how far did the Buran program = the Soviet Union's version of the STS "fail"? The one test flight was a technological triumph: Launch in very bad weather (STS can't do that), remote-controlled flight (STS can't do that), remote-controlled landing (STS can't do that).

The problem, as far as I remember, was the lack of a serious plan to do useful things with it, which - combined with high cost and a bad economy - led to the shut-down of the program. Instead Russia kept flying to their space stations with an old but cheap and reliable system. There may be a lesson in that ...

Marcel F. Williams said...

Thanks for your insight Dr. Chiao on our nations future in space. The Space Shuttle was a first of a kind vehicle with all of the quirks and dangers of a first of a kind technology. So the idea that we were going to routinely run this-- first generation space plane-- as some sort of a spaceliner was probably naive.

The problem is that you guys at NASA made it all look too easy. So that when a fatal accident did occur, people were shocked. But manned spaceflight is dangerous! That's why I consider you and all other astronauts to be space pioneers and heroes!

I agree with you that the Space Shuttle is expensive to operate. But I disagree that its too expensive to operate! The Space Shuttle budget is only about $3 billion a year while NASA's manned spaceflight related budget is around $9.1 billion annually. In fact, you could probably continue to operate the Shuttle program plus the space station program for about $5 or $6 billion a year and still have at least $2.4 to $3.4 billion dollars a year to invest in new space vehicle development. That's $12 to $17 billion to invest in a new space vehicle over 5 years time.

The Hutchison Bill proposes running a minimal number of Space Shuttle flights for only $2 billion a year. So that could add another $5 billion for replacement vehicle development.

I would prefer NASA invested that money in a directly shuttle derived HLV (Jupiter core boosters) an EDS stage and an HL-20 type of reusable space plane.

Amnon I. Govrin said...

Touching and beautiful post. As someone who grew up with the shuttle 'always there' it is amazing to see how at least some of what 2010 Space Odyssey is coming true - U.S. needing a ride from the Russians.

Anyway, Buran came about as a cold war response to the U.S. STS program.

It may be interesting for people to read a post I wrote about it in my Spacepirations blog, as I found a video showing Buran as a weapon -

Either way, it seems like Buran was shelved due to cost and not technical issues. How much cheaper and safer would flying U.S. shuttles become if it actually flew weekly? I guess we'll never know.


Renew the Space Shuttle Flight from 2011

The Space Shuttle is the best crew (7 crews) and cargo (25 mT) space plane as of today.

It is the best partner of the ISS. It should retire with the ISS same time as a great nation should do. It shows all about the national pride and the national interests.

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Key Effort to Reduce Reliance on Russian Soyuz

Restart the Space Shuttle will end NASA's reliance on Russia for space transportation to ISS from 2011 on.

NASA shall do the following actions for the next 20 years.

1) Shall make three new Space Shuttle orbiters in the period of 2011-2015.

2) Shall continue the 3 orbiters flight as of today to 2015.

3) Shall retire the 3 old orbiters in the period of 2015-2020.

4) Shall transfer the orbiter operational management to the commercial after 2015.

The reliance on Russian Soyuz is unacceptable for the national pride, national interests, and the national security.

Norman Copeland said...

''Nevertheless, Space Shuttle is a magnificent flying machine, unparalleled in the history of human spaceflight''.

Norman Copeland wrote:

I don't agree, I've flown in a jumbo 747 and times that 7 mile height by 30 and , wallah!!! International space station.

So, you float around, because we haven't invented gravity stabilisers.

I think science has stagnated in such luxurious averageness.

Lets get on with building proper space ships.

What have we learnt from low earth orbit in 30 years?

That people are sad to see an overtly expensive luxury go for some serious business and a ''real'' space exploration

Overpriced, overfunded, over supported.

20 billion a year for 5 astronauts to float around saying hey!!! This is groovy man...

No, seriously, let me.

John said...

First time post. Appreciate your work and service.

Given how much has been spent to date on Ares 1-X versus and seeing how each stands relative to launching the final product, I'd love to see how the Vision would look given that sort of cost-effectiveness. I'm guessing that we could do both (i.e. asteroid/Mars moon + lunar development).

I really regret the apparent neglect of lunar development in the new vision. I think we all will regret it if we don't make the moon the next step.