Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Shuttle and what it means to me

In less than three days, the orbiter Atlantis will land back on Earth. It's a bittersweet moment for me.

On one hand, the Shuttle program has been a good thing, if not a total success. We never got even close to the weekly launches originally envisioned, nor can 14 lives be brought back, but there were 133 safe launches. Science was done; satellites were launched, and the Hubble Space Telescope was brought to space.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory, which did for X-ray astronomy what Hubble has done in visible light. Magellan, which mapped Venus. Ulysses, which showed us the poles of the sun and explored cometary tails. Galileo, which explored Jupiter. All of those probes were launched by the Space Shuttle; without it, they could not have done their missions, and science would be weaker.

The Hubble Space Telescope has done more than any other telescope in history. By accurately measuring distances to Cepheid variable stars, it has provided the (then) most accurate estimate of the Hubble Constant and thus the age of the universe. It has provided crucial evidence for the acceleration of the universe's expansion. It has found black holes in the center of galaxies and proto-planetary disks in the Orion Nebula; it has watched a comet impact Jupiter in our own solar system, and taken the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, the deepest (furthest-looking) image of the universe yet. It's discovered optical counterparts to Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs). And it was launches and repaired (5 times) by crews on the Space Shuttle.

The International Space Station has been brought up and maintained in large part by Space Shuttle missions; the Shuttle has also provided occasional orbit-boosting burns. We now have a miniature city in Space, and even without the Shuttle we might be able to keep it a while.

But it's a sad day for NASA. For the first time since October 7th, 1958, (when the Mercury program was announced), the agency has no real program for human spaceflight. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 suggests a new booster by 2016, but funding is in doubt. The Constellation project was canceled after going far over budget. There's not public nor governmental support like there was for the Apollo program.

The Shuttle, like I said, also was not perfect. 14 astronauts died aboard on two separate incidents. Preventable accidents. 14 of 359 is a one-in-25 fatality rate, a death rate comparable only to heads of state. Officials estimated the chance of a fatality at one in 100,000; Richard Feynman (when serving on the Challenger investigation panel) was closer when he said one in 100.

Costs skyrocketed, always and every time. The original estimate was $640 (adjusted to 2011 dollars) per pound to orbit; the actual figure was more like $27,000. Russian rockets can do it for $2250 per pound.

But it's just about over. NASA is left with a nearly blank slate. Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is in big danger and may never leave the ground. NASA's budget is being razed for political purposes. There are serious questions as to whether NASA will have another program like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, or the Shuttle program. There are even those who question whether NASA will ever launch another astronaut.

Unless there is another politically-based race to space - and there may yet be with China, a country that has shown interest in weaponizing space - there will not be another program like Apollo where the whole country and all the politicians throw their hopes on it. Not unless there's something extraordinary, on the level of extraterrestrial contact or the creation of a faster-than-light drive.

The future, it seems, is the private space companies. Scaled Composites made SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft, and now they're creating space tourism. SpaceX is making the first new heavy booster in a decade, and the first one not created directly for NASA or the military. They plan to fly humans before 2020 in a reusable spacecraft.

This fall, I will be entering college, majoring in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering. At this point in time, it's what I want to do with my life. I love rocketry, I love designing things using mathematics, and I love solving problems. I can't guarantee that in four or five years I will still want to design space boosters or turbopumps, but I can guarantee that I will have a solid background in physics, mathematics, computer modeling, and design, and a degree that gives me a lot of flexibility to do what I want.

I also can't guarantee that I'll be able to get a job in aerospace engineering come 2015. The industry is going to be reeling from the end of the Space Shuttle program, and this is an industry that goes through heavy contractions on a periodic basis anyway. It's questionable how quickly private space launches of people and goods are going to grow the market for young engineers. It's a growth market eventually - lots of people and things are going to be sent to space, and they will need a lot of engineers to design a lot of rockets - but the question is when the sudden uptick begins.

And China has shown an interest in weaponizing space, which is problematic for someone who considers himself a pacifist. I haven't entirely codified my morals yet, but I think I would be very conflicted if I was to work on something that might be used not to launch a GPS satellite or a telescope or Captain Kirk, but instead to attack the other guy's astronauts or communications satellite.

But ultimately, this chronic pessimist is pretty hopeful. Whether or not NASA survives in anything like its present form, there's going to be a lot of space launches, and I believe I may be part of that. I'm definitely going to be doing something interesting. There is so much cool stuff out there, and I'm just optimistic enough to believe that space will be occupied, space will be colonized, and if we're very very lucky that it won't get weaponized. I believe that space will be revolutionized, revolutionized within my lifetime, and this revolution WILL be televised, in full-color 1080p 3D holo-screen view. I believe that the future can be as shiny as Star Trek even while the people are as real as Firefly. I want to be the one who designs the machines that make that future.

My name is David Sindel, and I'm going to be a rocket scientist when I grow up.

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