Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Space shuttle is Concorde

CNN reports further cuts in the NASA science program. The elephant in the room here is the manned space program and the decision to continue making shuttle flights.

The shuttle was amazingly popular when it was first launched, after the first disaster everyone was asking 'when can they get it flying again'. After the second disaster people finaly seem to be asking the questions that should have been asked before the thing was built:

  • Does the reusable orbiter concept actually reduce per launch costs?
  • What is the scientific mission of the space station?
  • Why not shut down manned exploration entirely and use robots?

    The shuttle has become the space equivalent of Concorde: for thirty years the acme of technological achievement. But despite being relaunched at great expense after a disaster things were never the same again.

    After furious arm twisting NASA has agreed to 'consider' a shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. If the shuttle is unable to do that it should be shut down immediately, servicing the HST is the only contribution to science it can make at this point.

    The rational policy at this point would be to fly one more mission to service the HST. The space station should be de-orbited, it is never going to achieve what it was meant to do. The Mars shot should be cancelled as premature. The money saved should be invested in cutting edge robotic exploration.

    We may have the technology to send a person to Mars but we certainly don't have the technology to get them there alive. The radiation would kill them before they were half way there.

    What we are close to having the technology to do is to set up a self-sustaining robot colony that can manufacture its own replacements. Establishing a colony of that kind would be an essential first step towards establishing any form of long term lunar presence. The colony does not need to be 100% self-sustaining. If the robot could fabricate the body parts of replacement robots the control systems could be supplied. The key thing is to start fabrication. Until it is possible to build essentials on site rather than ship every pound from earth the process is going to be hopelessly uneconomic.

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