We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

What does it mean?

I’d have waited awhile, but the TV mediots are already trying to place the events of today into A Grand Context. They are speaking in sweeping generalization and grand predictions of Its Effect On America, The End Of The Space Station… and so forth.

Yes there will be some effects, but primarily this is a human tragedy. We’ve lost some brave people and many of us empathize with the great vision and are saddened by the loss.

But it is not going to cause any Earth shattering changes. It is not going to scar the national psyche. It is just a family funeral of loved ones in which we are all part of the extended family; those of us in the space community feel it perhaps more deeply than most but not nearly so much as their co-workers in Houston and Cape Canaveral or their families.

With all of that said, I can now plunge into the punditry.

The shuttles are going to be grounded for anything from months to a year. This will cause an enormous impact on the ISS scheduling. Completion will be thrown back by years. It is not only the loss of time while the fleet is grounded; it is the loss of capacity. Columbia was not much use for ISS missions and so it was useful for other non-ISS missions. Now those missions will have to be cut or serviced by the remaining fleet. That means a lengthening of the ISS completion time line. This can be somewhat ameliorated by giving the Russians a bundle of money to handle most of the supply trips.

We can’t abandon the ISS for a long period of time. It must be reboosted at regular intervals because the vast solar arrays give it a lot of drag. There is a small amount of gas even at that altitude. Enough to slowly bring it down. So there is no real option of abandoning it for a couple years. You can’t.

You also can’t risk bringing something that big into re-entry in one piece; and you can’t disassemble it without shuttle support.

So NASA must get the fleet flying again. President Bush has already said we will not abandon space. In the community, we all knew that. It’s simply too important now.

There will almost certainly be a push for a replacement vehicle. The shuttle is, after all, a 1975 base level of technology. It’s been upgraded and retro fitted, but even the newest shuttle, the Endeavour, is nearing 15 years old. The problems are budgetary and the inability of the “old aerospace” to perform on anything like a reasonable time and budget. I had actually much hoped NASA would work with the existing shuttles until the end of the decade, long enough to let the start up companies move in and revolutionize the field.

NASA will go to Boeing or Lockmart for a replacement. They are not going to talk to XCor or Armadillo or any of the other companies who will develop the true space ships.

What is my guess? I will suggest we’ll see a half hearted program for a shuttle replacement initiated. It will run over budget or be stillborn like every other such program in the last 15 years. The ISS schedule will stretch out to a completion date of 2010, almost 30 years after Ronald Reagan called for a space station to be completed in 10 years. An X-Prize space ship will fly suborbital this year or next year and there will be private tourists on private suborbital flights by 2006 and orbital by 2010. NASA will then buy one for crew turnaround. The Russians will get a big capital infusion to turn out more Soyez and Protons.

The world will keep turning and the sky will stay firmly in place.

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11 comments to What does it mean?

  • Doug Jones

    A minor quibble: our company’s name is XCOR, all
    caps, no hyphen. Other than that, thanks for
    the good thoughts, and we’d love to make that

    Doug Jones, Rocket Plumber

  • Dale Amon

    Hi Doug. Sorry about that… I don’t think I used the hyphen other than in X-Prize, but I most certainly have been miscapitalizing you for ages. If I forget again, keep giving me a rolled up newspaper on the nose until I get it right.

    I was just on the phone chatting with Jeff out there in your facility btw.

    Maybe I’ll see you all in May if I can afford the international trip to San Jose. After all, I’m only the NSS conferences chair, so it would be nice for me to be there and congratulate Pat for surviving being an ISDC chair for the second time. Some people never learn 🙂

    Much depends on JB 😉

  • Dale, if/when you come out to San Jose, let me know, and I’ll buy you a beer or two.

  • David Davenport

    [ NASA will go to Boeing or Lockmart for a replacement. They are not going to talk to XCor or Armadillo or any of the other companies who will develop the true space ships. ]

    If XCor or Armadillo or any of the other hobby space clubs, also know as private enterprise space launch firms, are the ones to develop a manned launch system, why haven’t they already done so?

    My suggestions?

    My suggestion is threefold:

    (1) Don’t abandon the ISS. However, don’t take any unnecesary people along for the ride. This sounds dangerous? Space flight *is* dangerous. … Not that different from military service. NASA and the American public are going to have to adopt a tougher, more realistic attitude about Shuttle flights and space station operations.

    It’s a matter of keeping manned space travel alive. We can’t let the International Space Station and the American manned space program grind to a halt, no matter what certain NASA-hating bloggers who affect Mr. Spock-like dissociation from human sympathy would like.

    If ISS is abandoned and the Shuttles are grounded permanently, it will be hard, hard, difficult to re-start manned space flight.

    (2)Build a cargo-only Shuttle Orbiter, a Shuttle-C. This Shuttle will have no crew cabin. It will have an improved thermal protection system, as well as structural improvements.

    (3) Go ahead with the new manned mini-Shuttle, a.k.a. the Orbital Space Plane. However, develop a reusable launch system for the OSP. Don’t try to plop the OSP atop an expendable missile.

    Unfortunately, the OSP won’t be ready for launch in less than, I dunno, several years. To keep from abandoning the International Space Station, we’ll have to have either some Shuttle or some Soyuz launches in the meantime.

  • David Davenport

    Here’s some background:


    Just a little over a minute into Columbia’s launch Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and smacked into the ship’s left wing.


    From “Space Tranportation: A Systems Approach to Analysis and Design,” by Walter E. Hammond, 1999, pages 207-208:

    4.3.3 External Tank Development

    In 1971 ( that’s the age of the Shuttle system’s design! ), when the decision was made to go with the parallel burn, external tank (ET) configuration, several ET technical issues were not fully anticipated. Specifically, ice formation on the ET was not anticipated to be a problem, although ice formation on cryogenic tanks had been known to result. The ET RFP [ Request For Purchase] did not require insulation for the prevention of ice, but one of the bidders did address and highlight the potential problem of ice being dislodged during ignition of the propulsion systems and during liftoff causing potential damage to the orbiter’s TPS [Thermaql Protection System].

    In late 1973, a realization that ice forming on the external surface of the LO2 tank could be a serious problem resulted in considerable resources being expended to address the problem. In 1974, ice and debris prevention requirements were levied, which specified a minimum of 1 in. of spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) on the LO2 and LH2 external surfaces. The objective was to prevent the formation and shedding of ice from tank surfaces and ground systems, as well as providing thermal protection during ascent.

    The ET design that evolved serves several critical functions: the tank carries about 1.6 million lb. of super cold propellants within a skin not more than one quarter inch thick. …

  • David,

    NASA is the problem. I agree with L. Neil Smith, who posted elsewhere early today:

    NASA needs to be abolished, rather than handed over to anybody. It’s a great wonder that many more of these fatal accidents haven’t happened. NASA’s record of incompetence (read the original specs the shuttles were supposed to meet), together with their real mission — to keep you and me out of space — make them a burden and a liability to anyone who wants to get off this mudball or who simply desires to be free.

    The “hobby space clubs” you deride are the foundation of a real space industry. We don’t need ISS, and we don’t need a “Shuttle Program”.

    I’ve held this conviction since not long after I witnessed Challenger explode, up close and personal, and have seen nothing to disabuse me of the opinion in the intervening years. The real lessons of the investigation of Richard Feynman were pretty much ignored by the NASAcrats.

  • Dale Amon

    Russ: I only have one disagreement. We’ll lose just as many people ir not more in the private sector. The difference is, we will move ahead far faster and with less media attention.

    NASA has overkill on safety. So much procedure and checks that people can forget to actually think about what things mean. Two shuttle accidents in 110+ flights is within the statistical expectation. The big deal is that size and cost of the vehicle. When the time comes that one of my friends in the field starts flying regularly, the time will come when 7 or even more die horribly on one of their vehicles. The media will make a big thing of it for a day or two and then it will disappear to page 20 or so. And we’ll just pick up where we left off and continue.

    Consider the number of fatalities in the first decade of human flight, almost all of which was wholly private.

    We have got to get the idea out of our heads that anyone, ANYONE, can do this in perfect safety. People are going to di e regardless of who builds and runs the spaceship. If it is private we will mourn our dead and move on faster. That’s the difference.

    I’d like to see NASA become NACA and space flight be all private. It is going to take a good long while to get there but I have no doubts we will.

  • Dale: I agree 100% with you.

    Doug Jones: this post is for you. I was really piqued by David’s “hobby space club” remark, so I was motivated to say something nice about your, er, “club”.

  • LuminaT

    Well, for what it is worth, if I were NASA I wouldn’t buy a shuttle replacement from the guy who programmed Doom. 😉

  • I dunno about that… John Carmack has a track record of actually delivering on his promises.

  • Dale Amon

    And he’s actually flying a fully stabilized VTVL rocket platform with a human on top. Early flights have been tethered but they are talking of going up to 15,000 feet by the end of the year.