D. Dowd Muska


The Belated Retirement of NASA's Costly Deathtrap

January 20, 2011

“We’ve just dodged a bullet,” Morton Thiokol engineer Robert Ebeling whispered, as he watched the spacecraft clear its launch pad.

It was January 28, 1986, and Ebeling was wrong. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the orbiter Challenger, as well as its external fuel tank, disintegrated. Five astronauts, a defense-contractor employee, and a government-school teacher died.

Back when people used to write about Generation X, it was said that the shuttle’s destruction represented the cohort’s “loss of innocence,” akin to Pearl Harbor for the “Greatest Generation,” or Dealey Plaza for the Baby Boomers. But with a quarter-century of perspective, it’s clear that the loss of Challenger had no grand historical import. Even in 1986, America’s space bureaucracy wasn’t of interest to most Americans. NASA would grow more irrelevant as the agency selfishly clung to its belief that manned spaceflight belonged to it, and it alone.

The shuttle -- in NASA’s acronym-addicted parlance, it’s the Space Transportation System (STS) -- was born in the early 1970s. Apollo had salved the nation’s Sputnik-bruised ego. While uninterested in moonshots and missions to Mars, Richard Nixon saw the usefulness of a new toy for NASA. Reporter Malcolm McConnell, in Challenger: A Major Malfunction, explained that the president “finally gave the shuttle his full support because he saw it as a popular program he could flaunt on the 1972 campaign trail, especially in the newly Republican Sun Belt, where most aerospace contractors were located.”

To win congressional approval, NASA followed the time-tested strategy of telling politicians what they want to hear. The STS would be cheap, and it would fly frequently, agency officials claimed. It would meet the demands of all constituencies -- scientists, the Department of Defense, and the nascent commercial-satellite industry. It would have a payload bay big enough to assemble the orbital station America’s space “visionaries” desired.

In classic technocratic fashion, Washington put all the country’s space-launch eggs in the shuttle’s basket. The policy failed, spectacularly, long before Challenger broke apart. Costs were too high, and the agency never came close to achieving an impressive flight rate.

The televised tragedy revealed that in addition to stumbling on the economic and performance fronts, the shuttle was inherently dangerous. Morton Thiokol’s infamously inadequate O-rings doomed Challenger, but as Newsweek uncovered, each orbiter “contained around 750 critical parts that had no fail-safe backup and another 1,600 components that had only a single backup -- more than on experimental fighter planes, whose pilots over their careers faced nearly a 1-in-4 chance of being killed in tests.”

In Challenger’s aftermath, the military returned to expendable rockets for its considerable orbital needs. (For 30 years, the Department of Defense’s space budget has exceeded NASA’s total expenditures.) And the Reagan administration banned commercial satellites from the STS, thus sparking the creation of a domestic launch-vehicle industry.

NASA stopped making wild claims about the shuttle’s capabilities, and flights resumed. Lots of people vote in Florida and Texas, and fedpols take notice. Few cared that the program continued to be outrageously wasteful and cumbersome. In his blistering 2004 book Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age, Greg Klerkx observed: “That the shuttle still works at all is the result of an incredible amount of money and manpower put in service of a vehicle that is the spacefaring equivalent of a Ford Pinto: it keeps chugging along not because it is a fundamentally good vehicle, but because it is serviced relentlessly by a swarm of technicians and has virtually every major component replaced, repaired or refurbished after every trip -- not by choice, but out of necessity.”

Stopping the shuttle in 1986 would have saved tens of billions of dollars -- as well as another seven lives, 17 years later. (Columbia’s deaths were arguably more tragic than those caused by Challenger. In a stunning exposé, The Los Angeles Times found that experiments performed during the 2003 mission “had no urgency,” and that several “were high school student projects.”) But most importantly, scuttling the STS might have kept NASA from sabotaging every promising manned-spaceflight venture proposed by the private sector over the last few decades. Happily, astro-bureaucrats’ truculence will finally be dashed when the last shuttle flight blasts off later this year.

In the report of the presidential commission tasked with investigating the tragedy, legendary physicist Richard Feynman noted, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Human nature can’t be fooled, either. That’s the true lesson of the Challenger disaster.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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