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03 August, 2011

The Problem with the Space Shuttle

With all the talk of how unamerican it is that the US doesn't have it's own way to space anymore, it's easy to get indignant with national pride and start wanting to blame someone. The public is upset at NASA, Congress, and whoever else they want to blame for the end of the Space Shuttle program, but in a way, they have themselves to blame. Not only did the public not have enough interest in space travel to write their congress people or vote for politicians that would have funded not only the Space Shuttle program, but also the programs that were supposed to eventually replace the Space Shuttles, but this disinterest cause NASA to create a program that was ultimately a failure.

After the first moon landing, public interest rapidly waned. People had been so proud that we had gotten to the Moon before the Russians and yet had failed to be interested in what we found in subsequent missions. They weren't interested in the Moon itself, they were only interested in being able to say they had beat the Commies.

As public interest waned, a new generation of NASA engineers began formulating the next phase of space flight, a phase that was to only be a stepping stone between the Apollo rockets and a new era of space vehicles that would have taken us to the Moon again as colonists perhaps, or even to Mars as explorers. The problem was that they were overzealous and worked on timelines with expectations that were beyond what they could reasonably do.

NASA, time and again, had to make decisions during missions that basically juggled with the lives of the astronauts that they had sent into space. Twice, they dropped the ball, the biggest cost being the 14 lives of the crews of Challenger and Columbia.

The Space Shuttles were designed and built to operate for about ten years. They flew for thirty. Some see that as a success, and can point to successful missions and projects such as Hubble and ISS as testimony to the grandeur of American progress and ingenuity, but statistically, the failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most. It's amazing that more of them didn't explode. The program was also supposed to save us millions and instead cost us almost two-hundred-billion dollars.

Now Americans are crying and whining about having to go up in space with Russians, and weep about their national pride and heritage in space. NASA is to blame, the government is to blame, but most of all our society is to blame, for not recognizing the sugar-coating and aggrandizement of a dangerous, outdated and extortionate shuttle fleet. Cry all you want, America, but you should be weeping that you didn't care enough to bring these failures into the light sooner or that you kept voting for people who refused to commit to taking the next step into space flight. Ultimately, it's your own fault.

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