John Noble Wilford covers shuttle’s final flight

How poignant that the chronicler of Apollo 11 and America’s other great space triumphs was on hand to chronicle the Shuttle’s final flight.

I once earned a living designing guidance systems for missiles. I am an electrical engineer, and I followed religiously the New York Times‘ John Noble Wilford’s fantastic coverage of the space program, and much else besides. How poignant that the chronicler of Apollo 11 and America’s other great space triumphs was on hand to chronicle the Shuttle’s final flight.

Wilford’s bookend stories chronicle the declining ambitions and imagination of an American space enterprise that lost its way long ago. That enterprise began in Cold War fear of Soviet space achievements. John Kennedy’s challenged our nation to put a man on the moon and to return him safely (yes this was a more sexist era) before the decade was out. Alongside the good and bad of the 1960s, my parents’ generation met that challenge. My father, also an engineer, helped in that effort.

NASA cannot be blamed for the fact that no other manned mission could possibly match the jaw-dropping moment of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. Nor could any other mission match the pictures (here from Apollo 10) of our own earth rising, as seen from the moon.

It’s sad to see the shuttle program end. Yet in hindsight, the shuttle and the space station with which it was connected were misconceived, ill-executed, and overly costly ventures. They crowded out more worthy and scientifically valuable ventures. Unmanned space flight offers many more opportunities to explore the solar system, to monitor the earth itself, to study the physics of the sun and the stars.

Cancellation of the Webb space telescope was a more serious blow to space science than the demise of the shuttle. More generally, our society’s capacity to identify and to achieve big things, our capacity to appreciate and to collectively support the broader scientific enterprise, is not what it once was or what it needs to be.

Wilford’s story begins:

There was a time, some of us remember, when a countdown at Canaveral stopped the world in its tracks. On television or at the launching, every breath was held at liftoff and every eye followed the fiery plume of ascent, up and away. Godspeed, said someone who was everyone.

I remember that.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “John Noble Wilford covers shuttle’s final flight”

  1. Harold: a wonderful elegiac essay. The shuttle, oddly enough, may have made those Canaveral moments less sacred because it took off over and over again, making take-offs a relatively hum-drum occurrence.

    Tip for star gazers: Did you know that Neptune turns one year old in Neptunian years on Monday? Ace science reporter Tracey Logan will have a show on BBC about this on Monday http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b012fbvt

  2. Unmanned space flight offers many more opportunities to explore the solar system, to monitor the earth itself, to study the physics of the sun and the stars.

    Having manned spaceflight, at least to LEO, would be nice though. Aside from research purposes (and we’re far from the point where robotic craft can completely substitute for what humans can do in space), we want to be able to go up and repair our multi-billion dollar satellites and space telescopes (like what happened with Hubble).

    Cancellation of the Webb space telescope was a more serious blow to space science than the demise of the shuttle.

    Cancelling it is a very stupid idea at this point, even if it is 400% over budget and 10 years behind schedule. The money and time spent on it are both “sunk costs”, so unless it’s cheaper to build and launch a new one, we might as well push through with the project to completion.

  3. Brett, that’s nonsense. The only reason the last Shuttle flight is a shame is that it ever happened. The Shuttle has been a fantastically wasteful boondoggle from start to finish; it should never have happened, and each additional flight was the tragedy, not the fact that they stopped. Even if we are so deluded by romantic notions about the importance of getting flesh into orbit, the shuttle was always the worst idea around: it carried so much extra and useless mass into orbit each time, mass that would then be wastefully be brought back down to Earth; and despite promises of being a reusable spacecraft, in practice the maintenance required after each flight amounted to remanufacturing the shuttle. The shuttle replaced the Apollo-style great big rocket, but between the two the great big rocket was the correct approach.
    Still, that’s even if we accept the asserted value of manned spaceflight. Contrary to your claims about the wonderfulness of having meat in low-earth orbit, we haven’t learned a damn thing from manned spaceflight since the Apollo mission recovered samples from the moon, with two exceptions: thanks to our ability to put people in orbit we’ve collected data about the effect of spaceflight on people (although the best of these data were Russian, and didn’t use the shuttle), and we managed to repair the Hubble in orbit – at a greater expense than simply replacing the defective Hubble would have cost. That’s effectively no results tallied by manned spaceflight over a period of decades, decades in which through spaceflight we have made amazing discoveries, performed incredible feats of endurance on Mars, intercepted comets, etcetera – all of these being accomplishments all made through unmanned spaceflight.
    We’ve gradually built an ever-more-elaborate International Space Station for which we have no use and which has yet to produce a single interesting result, or even to house an experiment requiring human supervision and capable of producing an interesting result. NASA has been so lacking for actual science to do in orbit, and so desperate to find so-called science projects to include in its projects, that I can literally point you to a study of the effects of spaceflight on small animals whose only significant finding was that if they were to repeat the study they would include air holes.
    Meanwhile, we have spent untold fortunes and lost a dozen brave men and women pointlessly hurling tons of useless shuttle and its purposeless supercargo of astronauts into low-earth orbit, with nothing meaningful to do once they’re up there. These huge budgets were often scraped together by shortchanging the genuinely groundbreaking science made possible by developments in unmanned spaceflight. You don’t think robotic craft can substitute for what humans can do in space? The truth is very much the other way around – certainly once the costs of unmanned and manned spaceflight are compared.

  4. What Warren said.

    Back in the 1960s, the US government undertook several major initiatives.

    Some were extraordinary successes … Securing the civil rights of African-Americans, Medicare, enforcing the Bill of Rights for criminal defendants, moving Soviet-American relations from confrontation to detente.

    Others were unmitigated disasters … The war(s) in Southeast Asia chief among them.

    Others were pointless and expensive but more-or-less harmless, like manned space flight and the “war on poverty”

  5. Brett, that’s nonsense. The only reason the last Shuttle flight is a shame is that it ever happened. The Shuttle has been a fantastically wasteful boondoggle from start to finish; it should never have happened, and each additional flight was the tragedy, not the fact that they stopped. Even if we are so deluded by romantic notions about the importance of getting flesh into orbit, the shuttle was always the worst idea around: it carried so much extra and useless mass into orbit each time, mass that would then be wastefully be brought back down to Earth; and despite promises of being a reusable spacecraft, in practice the maintenance required after each flight amounted to remanufacturing the shuttle. The shuttle replaced the Apollo-style great big rocket, but between the two the great big rocket was the correct approach.

    I’m not defending the Shuttle, just manned spaceflight.

    Still, that’s even if we accept the asserted value of manned spaceflight. Contrary to your claims about the wonderfulness of having meat in low-earth orbit, we haven’t learned a damn thing from manned spaceflight since the Apollo mission recovered samples from the moon, with two exceptions: thanks to our ability to put people in orbit we’ve collected data about the effect of spaceflight on people (although the best of these data were Russian, and didn’t use the shuttle),

    NASA certainly seems to think otherwise. And that doesn’t include what we’ve learned as part of developing and operating the Space Shuttle (such as man-rated, solid-fueled boosters).

    and we managed to repair the Hubble in orbit – at a greater expense than simply replacing the defective Hubble would have cost. That’s effectively no results tallied by manned spaceflight over a period of decades, decades in which through spaceflight we have made amazing discoveries, performed incredible feats of endurance on Mars, intercepted comets, etcetera – all of these being accomplishments all made through unmanned spaceflight.

    True, but we’re talking about five missions over 16 years. Not to mention that the $2.5 billion telescope was severely curtailed in what it could do until we did the first servicing mission – and the next generation of space telescopes are not going to be drastically cheaper, if the James Webb telescope is any indication.

    “Time” is another important factor here. Sure, we could have simply cut our losses on Hubble and built a new one, but we’d have wasted years of construction and planning.

    Meanwhile, we have spent untold fortunes and lost a dozen brave men and women pointlessly hurling tons of useless shuttle and its purposeless supercargo of astronauts into low-earth orbit, with nothing meaningful to do once they’re up there. These huge budgets were often scraped together by shortchanging the genuinely groundbreaking science made possible by developments in unmanned spaceflight. You don’t think robotic craft can substitute for what humans can do in space? The truth is very much the other way around – certainly once the costs of unmanned and manned spaceflight are compared.

    You think the budget for those unmanned programs would exist in anything resembling the form it does now if the manned space program didn’t exist? I don’t. Look at what happened to the Superconducting Supercollider if you want to see what happens to expensive pure science projects.

  6. I found the list of ISS experiments by mission: here. I’d hardly call it nothing but “the effects of spaceflight on people”.

    In any case, manned spaceflight is also important if you ever want to develop space colonies, for which you require long-term space habitation experience. That’s the type of thing that becomes very important on the time-scale of centuries, particularly since there is stuff out there that could effectively wipe us out as a technological civilization.

  7. I found the list of ISS experiments by mission: here.

    I challenge you to defend most of the items on that list. There are a whole bunch on human biology in space, a few model-system biology experiments that I can promise you will be of essentially zero interest to anyone, another round of materials-science-in-microgravity experiments (apparently because the track record of three decades of these experiments finding nothing isn’t sufficient), experiments that are on the shuttle but are in fact unmanned, and the occasional thing that might be useful for later spacecraft design (capillary flow, for example). Then there’s my personal favorite: monkeys with cameras. I mean, seriously, “Crew Earth Observations”? Is this meant as a joke? How much of the money that was saved by cancelling the Deep Space Climate Observatory do you think was spent having some jet jockeys controlling cameras from orbit making observations that would be better made from a purpose-built satellite directed by a ground crew?

    And as to space colonies, I’m all for them. But our current manned spaceflight program does almost nothing towards this goal. If we really wanted to pursue space colonies, we’d be reviving the BioSphere project, and learning how to make a maximally self-sustaining closed ecology. We’d be developing heavy-lift capabilities. We’d be doing more robotics and unmanned prospecting. We wouldn’t have a bunch of jumpsuited apes overseeing experiments that are mostly pointless or that don’t need any human interference, at tremendous expense.

    Just about the only argument I’ve ever seen for NASA that I find not to be totally counterfactual is the psychological argument: we need manned spaceflight because if we stopped now, we wouldn’t go back later having figured out how to do it right, or – as you propose – that without these square-chinned titans striding across the tarmac wearing NASA patches, on their way to and from pursuing their essentially onanistic objectives in orbit, science would lose valuable propaganda and funding for unmanned spaceflight would decrease. You may be right: it may be that a massively wasteful manned-spaceflight program is the price we pay for a small unmanned spaceflight program, even though we’re constantly hearing that another unmanned mission has been scrapped so that more Tang can be sent heavenwards. But it’s not a great excuse.

  8. Oh, and it’s hardly fair to credit the latter-day Laikas of the space program for the solid engineering work that got them whirling aimlessly around our world. I appreciate that reliable solid-fuel rockets are a good thing (though I don’t know whether it was manned spaceflight or ICBMs that drove their development), but that was work done down here on Terra Firma.

  9. “NASA cannot be blamed for the fact that no other manned mission could possibly match the jaw-dropping moment of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon.”

    No, that would be the nuclear test ban treaty, which banned the only propulsion system we’ve yet devised that would make full out exploration and colonization of the solar system practical: Orion. Limited to chemical energies, space exploration must always be an expensive stunt beyond Earth orbit. Only the atom has enough power to make transit between the planets really feasible.

  10. And as to space colonies, I’m all for them. But our current manned spaceflight program does almost nothing towards this goal.

    So we’re actually in some degree of agreement?

    I pointed out that I’m not really defending the shuttle, just manned spaceflight. I’m not even that enthusiastic about the ISS – I just wanted to point out that manned spaceflight hadn’t been totally pointless over the past 40 years, and I figured that without the “space colonies” argument, I’m really just defending LEO travel.

    If we really wanted to pursue space colonies, we’d be reviving the BioSphere project, and learning how to make a maximally self-sustaining closed ecology.

    The Russians have done a lot of useful work on that with BIOS-3. They managed to cycle virtually all of the oxygen with chlorella algae (and the earlier version of Bios was doing 85% by 1968), as well as most of the water and over 50% of the food. The link says that crews have stayed isolated in there for six months or more, but the actual record is supposedly 13 months by Nikolai Bugreev.

    We’d be developing heavy-lift capabilities. We’d be doing more robotics and unmanned prospecting.

    I support both of these objectives. That’s the main reason why I was opposed to cancelling Constellation, the Ares lifters, and Orion.

    we need manned spaceflight because if we stopped now, we wouldn’t go back later having figured out how to do it right,

    More likely is that we’d lose all of our institutional experience in manned spaceflight from NASA as the engineers and people involved went on to other prospects, and have to start from scratch in 20 years or so.

    No, that would be the nuclear test ban treaty, which banned the only propulsion system we’ve yet devised that would make full out exploration and colonization of the solar system practical: Orion.

    That’s not really true. There are other possible engines out there that could be useful for interplanetary travel, such as VASIMR or a variant on a Nuclear Thermal Rocket. Even conventional fuel would work for going to, say, Mars, as long as you could re-fuel on site there (carrying enough conventional fuel would be very impractical).

  11. Brett, Mr. Bellmore just wants to explode a lot of nuclear warheads in the atmosphere, probably because it angers the hippies; space exploration is just a nice side-benefit. I think Mr. Bellmore must live upwind of everywhere.

  12. I think it’s just that Orion has a lot of fans on-line. I’ve see plenty of advocates show up in space discussion threads elsewhere.

  13. “There are other possible engines out there that could be useful for interplanetary travel, such as VASIMR or a variant on a Nuclear Thermal Rocket.”

    For interplanetary travel the big issue is radiation exposure in transit. Outside the Van Allen belt, solar flares are deadly without significant radiation shielding. Yet the shielding to stop the flares transforms cosmic ray primaries, (Themselves a significant source of radiation damage on long trips.) into showers, which will kill you. Shielding sufficient to stop both is impossibly heavy for almost any propulsion source short of Orion.

    And so, interplanetary travel must be limited to fast sprints conducted in the knowledge that a solar flare spells everybody’s death.

    Mini-magnetosphere shielding *might* change this equation. It won’t allow the huge payloads Orion would.

    I guess I can understand the objection to Orion launches from the Earth’s surface, though the radiation risks are overblown. But in space the radiation from an Orion drive is lost in the background noise, compared to solar and cosmic radiation. So, conventional launches to space, and Orion once in orbit. Sooner or later somebody is going to do it, and they’ll end up owning the solar system.

  14. Brett, how do you accumulate enough mass in near-earth orbit for use in shielding, enough that it requires propulsion by Orion, except by lifting it from the Earth’s surface (lifting that would presumably require Orion In The Atmosphere)? Or are you going to send nuclear-armed robots on years-long trips to the asteroid belt to launch rocks at the Earth, relying on our ability to capture them instead of their going all Schumacher-Levy on us?

    Also, if you’re going to say that Orion is prevented by the Test Ban Treaty, you’re talking about nuclear explosions in the atmosphere. There are treaties on the demilitarization of space (i.e., orbiting warheads is a no-no) and agreements about nuclear power sources in orbit (because of concerns about failed launches and orbital decay) that might prevent Orion from being used outside of the atmosphere – but I don’t think the Test Ban Treaty is relevant.

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