It IS rocket science

The space shuttle lands for the last time

July 21st is the date NASA shows what it can and can’t do. On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, wiping out the humiliation of Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin in 1961. This morning, just before dawn, the shuttle landed for the last time.

The space race showed that by mobilising the intellectual, financial and industrial resources of the world’s most powerful nation, it was possible to achieve a spectacular if not particularly useful goal. After a few missions, manned flights to the Moon were abandoned.

The shuttle was supposed to be a cheap, reliable space truck. It turned out to be expensive and dangerous and it too has now been abandoned.

NASA claimed the programme would cost $7.45 billion ($43 billion in 2011 dollars, adjusting for inflation), and $9.3M ($54M in 2011 dollars) per flight. In fact, the programme cost $196 billion (adjusting for inflation) and costs nearly half a billion dollars per launch.

And 14 of the 18 people killed flying into space died on the shuttle.

One reason things didn’t work out as hoped is that the shuttle programme is a mix of innovation and technology lock-in or “path dependency” – you start doing a job one way and keep on doing it like that, even if another technology could do it better.

In fact, Neal Stephenson of Future Tense argues that path dependency is a characteristic of space programmes since the start.

Launch vehicles are based on the rockets used to lob nuclear weapons from one continent to another, and these in turn are based on the V2 rockets Germany developed at the end of WWII.

By definition, these only had to work once, and accuracy wasn’t all that important, given the destructive power of the bombs they carried. Moreover, as long as they got the payload safely into space, it didn’t really matter how badly they themselves were damaged in the process.

None of those conditions applies to the shuttle, yet it uses traditional rocket technology to get up into orbit. (Actually, it goes across. Rockets only travel vertically at the start of the trip to escape the dense lower atmosphere. Then they tilt and fly more or less horizontally until their centrifugal force is enough to overcome gravity.)

Clumsy, limited and expensive as they are, traditional rockets are still the best way we have to get payloads into space. But if space hadn’t been a race, maybe we would have taken the time to think about other ways of getting there.

So has it all been a waste of money? The trillions of dollars spent on developing missiles and today’s spacecraft could have produced a very different space programme. But over 50 countries have now launched and operate a satellite, and at least 12 more intend to have their first satellite in orbit over the next five years.

Space is an essential dimension of today’s world economic infrastructure, and a source of economic growth and new jobs. We’re all used to seeing satellite maps in weather forecasts, but many other applications are all around us without most people being aware of the spaceborne technologies they rely on.

Mobile phone calls bounce off satellites, as do thousands of TV channels. Satellite tracking allows transport companies to locate ships across the world’s oceans, but also to tell us when the next bus is  due. Automatic teller machines outside banks check your PIN code and other details via space.

GPS navigation has created a whole new market for satnav equipment and software, with already more than a billion users in 2010. The use of mobile location technologies in automotive and consumer applications, including smart phones, has been growing exponentially since the early 2000s.

Many other products have benefitted from space R&D, including digital image processing, baby formula and heart pumps, but I think that to look at it in these terms misses the point. A space agency’s job is to help us understand the universe and take advantage of outer space, not to invent new consumer products. As Daniel Lockney, technology transfer program executive at NASA put it: “If you wanted to create a heart pump, building a rocket that will launch it into space wouldn’t be the practical way to go about it.”

Useful links

The Space Economy at a Glance 2011

OECD work on space

Patrick Love

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  1. Brett Cairns - 07/08/2011 Reply

    The exploration and exploitation of space is absolutely essential if we are to progress as an increasingly technologically dependent world. More money spent on research and development instead of path dependent technology advancement would seem prudent. While the article mentions some of the things we now use as a result of the exploitation of space there are many many more

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