On Tuesday, USA Today got NASA director Michael Griffin to admit what many people (myself included) have been saying for quite a while: The space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) were terrible mistakes that cost a quarter of a trillion dollars and 14 astronauts' lives.
Conceived during the Nixon administration, the shuttle was supposed to be a horizontal lift-body air-and-spacecraft that overcame the waste of single-use rockets that characterized the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules. Funding cuts made that goal impossible, so what we got was a crude, oversized glider that still had to cling to disposable, single-use boosters and fuel tanks to reach orbit. (Never mind the fact that the very idea of the shuttle, which requires disposable cargo and indispensable crew be sent into orbit simultaneously, is a bad one.) Worse, the shuttle was actually less safe than its predecessor capsules, as the shuttle launched parallel to its disposable counterparts, rather than safely atop them—where the capsules could be preemptively jettisoned in the event of trouble, and didn't have to worry about being struck by insulating foam. Also, the "flying brick" controlled glide reentry of the shuttle is less safe than the parachute-mitigated descent of the Apollo capsules.
The only technical advantages of the shuttle were larger crew sizes, its potential as an orbital construction platform, and the ability to ferry cargo back from orbit. Of course, the shuttle was a bad solution to all these issues. Larger crew sizes could have been better accommodated by larger, improved capsules, as NASA's new Project Constellation—the planned successor to the shuttle—will demonstrate. Almost nobody ever wants to bring something back from orbit—think about it, who wants to keep an outdated satellite?—and when they do, its easier to design the object with self-contained reentry and recovery in mind, rather than risk craft and crew on a go-fetch mission. Which brings us to the orbital construction platform, something the shuttle is actually good at, but shouldn't be necessary in the first place.
When you send modular components into orbit, they should be designed with orbital construction in mind, so that you don't need a $2 billion spacecraft to insert Tab A into Slot B. SkyLab and Mir prove this point. However, if you intend to build a lets-all-join-hands-and-sing politics-over-science international space station, with a dozen countries building a dozen or so parts independently, you're going to need a shuttle to bolt the end-product together. Frankly, this is more an indictment of the ISS than the shuttle, because the ISS was designed to make a bad idea like the shuttle necessary.
And as for ISS, there's pretty much no legitimate scientific reason to build a space station in low Earth orbit other than to study the longterm effects of microgravity on human beings, and we could have done that far simpler and cheaper with a Mir-style station than the motley modular design of ISS. All the other orbital experiment packages could have been done more safely and cheaply as independent probes and satellites. Why weld a telescope onto ISS when you can build a Hubble? And don't give me the "we need a way station for eventual ferries to the moon" crap. ISS isn't built for that, can't handle that, and won't solve that. You want to build a low-earth-orbit way station, I'm all for it. But build the translunar spacecraft it will service first. And until we get past the shuttle, that's never going to happen.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.