Fetch me a Ten-Story Fork

The Space Shuttle Discovery made it down safely. This is a good thing for many reasons, the very least of which is that I won’t look like a ghoulish little shit for writing what follows.

Immediately after Discovery‘s launch, NASA announced that it was grounding the fleet until such time as it could be assured that the falling-foam problem, already thought to be fixed, really was fixed. Make no mistake: I applaud the administrators who made the doubtless-difficult decision to give astronaut safety a higher priority than public relations, and I don’t mean to kick them while they’re down.

But this seems like a good time to cast a critical and unforgiving eye upon the Shuttle program as a whole. I mean, we’re talking about a launch vehicle that was designed more than a quarter-century ago, and has killed an appreciable fraction of its highly-trained passengers. It never worked that well to begin with: it can only get up to Low Earth Orbit, for one thing, and therefore needs an additional booster to launch most satellites and probes.

As ‘reusable’ launch vehicles go, it winds up throwing a goodly amount of material away. The main fuel tank — source of the falling foam that doomed Columbia — burns up the atmosphere and is thus a complete write-off. The solid-rocket boosters are nominally recoverable, but at such expense that it wouldn’t be significantly more expense to build new ones every time. (They disassemble into segments for transport after recovery; the gap between segments is supposed to be sealed by O-rings — the infamous O-rings that hardened in the cold and allowed a jet of flame from the SRBs to lance into Challenger‘s main fuel tank, destroying the entire vehicle.)

All of this is very old news.

It’s fashionable again these days to whine and piss and moan the old refrain that America is losing its competetive edge, that all the good jobs are going overseas, and so on ad nauseam. So let’s do something about it. Let’s put our heads together, let’s loosen the purse strings — and for fuck’s sake, someone please promise Burt Rutan free drinks or whatever the hell it is he likes, if that’s what it takes to get him to join the huddle — and let’s design and build something truly audacious, so that we can finally send the Shuttle off to its well-earned retirement.

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