Atlantis’ last tripJuly 9, 2011
One hundred and thirty-five flights. Thousands of tons of cargo, equipment, experiments, satellites, and passengers. Over five hundred million miles of orbits. I was never a big fan of the Shuttles, or Space Transportation System…I thought it a huge set of compromises which meant it could never really fulfill any of its missions. I have wished many times for a combination of mass-produced unmanned cargo rockets to supply parts and such for space stations and missions to the Moon and Mars, and manned spaceplanes that were dedicated to flying personnel, not cargo or satellites. I always thought the shuttle system was a pretty darned expensive way to launch a satellite.
And yet, it did fulfill just about every one of those missions set for it, although it was far more expensive than hoped. Partially that was 1970s technology; the airframe, engines, and even the thermal protection system were never substantially changed after Atlantis was built. Some aircraft and ships are almost rebuilt from the inside out as refurbishment occurs, but while many changes were made over the years to the shuttles, they remained very heavy and that limited their performance. Some of the problem was, as Jerry Pournelle put it, that the shuttle really was a massive government jobs program. There was no incentive to make it fly with fewer support personnel. There were all those folks working for NASA post-Apollo, and nobody wanted to lay them all off.
To a degree, that could have been a good thing. We don’t want to lose the people who know how to do things – or better yet, how not to do things. But NASA became another bloated government bureaucracy. Generating paper became much more important than flying things. (I put some of that down to the fact that, to go to the moon in a short time, we did it the Soviet, centralized planning way, not the American, capitalist way. That might have taken longer, but we would have most likely stayed.)
But all that aside, the shuttle certainly was, as Dennis Jenkins put it, “the truck that flew.” (His book is highly recommended, and I hear there will be a new edition in a few months, updating to the current mission.) The shuttle was called upon to be a mini-space station for experiments. It was a repair shed. It was a delivery van. It was a limousine. And it did it all, and it did it pretty damned well, all things considered.
What saddens me is that while Atlantis is at the ISS delivering equipement this weekend, there is no second-generation spaceplane there as well, the vehicle that would take up the torch for the shuttles. We’ll have super-Apollos soon, from SpaceX and others, but nothing like the shuttle. The Air Force may have one, eventually, like the unmanned version they have now. But the flexibility of having a lot of passenger space and room for a lot of cargo, equipment or experiments is now gone.