PERSPECTIVE : Lift-Off! but Where Do We Go from Here; the Space Shuttle Discovery Eventually Made It Back to Earth. Just Steve Curtis Wonders Whether It's Time NASA Looked beyond the Ageing Spacecraft

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Curtis

Since the dawn of aviation history, the aerospace industry has been a place for dreamers. Just about every rocket engineer in the world has at least one foot in the clouds and many of them are guilty of letting their imagination get the better of them. To put this statement in perspective, it's worth remembering that around the time of the recent Star Wars film release, an entire cohort of Nasa engineers admitted that the 1977 Star Wars film heavily influenced their careers.

This passion for the subject combined with several moments of phenomenal 20th century progress left many with the feeling that almost anything can be achieved. In the aerospace industry, if a miracle doesn't happen every 5 years we're in the middle of the next dark age.

American rocket scientists are still expecting the funding levels of the 1960s to return at any moment. They won't. Today, Nasa only receives a fraction of the resources it received during the 'space race'. Similarly the heady pace of change that saw men walking on the moon a mere 10 years after the first manned space flight is unlikely to be repeated. Progress takes time, sustained funding and - in the case of manned space flight - design engineers who are ready to send astronauts to their deaths.

Rocket scientists also have a habit of proposing fantastically ambitious space craft that later turn out to be unrealistic. The major space agencies of this world routinely waste hundreds of millions of dollars designing machines that will never fly. Once they realise they've made a mistake, they start on an entirely new design. By the time Nasa started cutting metal for the current space station they had already spent more money on funding a series of failed designs than the likely cost of actually building the station.

One group of space scientists who may have had a more sensible approach are the Russians. When the Russians launch a Soyuz manned space craft to the International Space Station they use a rocket launcher which is only a modified version of the rocket that sent Gagarin into orbit over 40 years ago!

Similarly their much ridiculed 'Mir' Space Station was a modified version of the earlier Salyut. It's true that Mir sometimes had problems but it's true also that they usually overcame them. Had the Americans built a second generation Skylab space station (which they knew how to build), they might have been far better served than building the entirely new International Space Station.

Which brings us back to Nasa and their latest proposal to phase out the space shuttle and replace it with a next generation machine. This may be a mistake.

Don't knock the space shuttle. If you look at the individual elements of the machine, much of it is actually perfectly good kit. Take the solid rocket boosters. In 114 launches 228 boosters have succeeded in over 99.5 per cent of cases. Similarly, no external tanks have ever structurally failed and even the much derided shuttle heat shield has protected the crew from the heat of re-entry in over 99 per cent of launches (one catastrophic failure in 114 launches.) Prior to the shuttle no space craft had ever re-entered the atmosphere more than once.

Problems? Well the heat shield requires much heavier maintenance than expected. The average number of damaged areas to the shuttle heat shield is about 150 per launch. …