Why the Space Shuttle was one of the must successful design experiments of all time.
The Space Shuttle is no more. Atlantis returned safely to Earth yesterday, ending the final mission of NASA's 30-year program. The Shuttle was, as Christopher Mims aptly put it on Technology Review, "one of the most complicated pieces of technology ever conceived." It was also a triumph of design in the best, most expansive sense of the word: The STS (Space Transportation System) program literally set out to rethink manned spaceflight from the ground up. Post-Apollo, sending people into space became a design problem: not just "how," but why? What if manned spaceflight was no longer a Cold War pissing match or a bid for the glory of mankind, but as routine -- mundane, even -- as long-distance trucking? That's lateral thinking that would put IDEO or frog design to shame -- yet it came out of a massive government agency. Not only that, it got built. And it worked. For 30 years and 135 missions.
To celebrate that success, and to capture my own mixed emotions about the end of the STS, here's a Shuttle tribute montage that I made:
Of course, "it worked" isn't actually that simple. Challenger and Columbia are a testament to that. And the vision of routine "space trucking" never came to practical fruition either. Ironically, though, the design vision was too successful -- even though every Shuttle mission was risky, experimental, and expensive, the American people did come to consider it a mundane event, barely worth flipping the channel to watch during commercials. Hey, did you hear one of the space mechanics dropped a wrench in orbit today? Haw, haw!
But the Shuttle did touch us and connect with us and inspire us, in the way that only world-class design can. It may have been a "space truck" in our heads but in our hearts it was a symbol more powerful and global than the Nike swoosh, Apple logo, or possibly even the American flag. The Space Shuttle, as an experimental vehicle, outlived its usefulness. But as an emotional lodestone -- for NASA, for America, for the idea that humans, as a species, can take something awesome and terrible as going into space and make it look as easy as flying an airplane -- it was essential. And there is a void in its wake. Filling it will require another quantum leap in not just science and engineering, but also in design thinking -- in "solving for why."
COMMENTARY: I am sorry to see NASA's Space Shuttle program finally end, but the Space Shuttle Program was 30 year old technology. Every single launch was emincely complex, fraught with hidden dangers, delays and repairs before and after each launch, and everyone watched nervously everytime a Space Shuttle was launched and returned from space. When they said, "Let's light this candle", they weren't kidding. I am thankful that Barack Obama saw the wisdom of ending the Space Shuttle program. He has taken the heat for ending the program mostly from the Right, but it was time for the damn thing to go as you shall see below.
What Happens To The Remaining Space Shuttles?
After 30 years of spaceflight, more than 130 missions, and numerous science and technology firsts, NASA's space shuttle fleet will retire and be on display at institutions across the country to inspire the next generation of explorers and engineers.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Tuesday announced the facilities where four shuttle orbiters will be displayed permanently at the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.
- Shuttle Enterprise - The first orbiter built, will move from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.
- Shuttle Discovery - The Udvar-Hazy Center will become the new home for Shuttle Discovery, which retired after completing its 39th mission in March.
- Shuttle Endeavour - Which is preparing for its final flight at the end of the month will go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
- Shuttle Atlantis - which will fly the last planned shuttle mission in June, will be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex in Florida.
"We want to thank all of the locations that expressed an interest in one of these national treasures. This was a very difficult decision, but one that was made with the American public in mind. In the end, these choices provide the greatest number of people with the best opportunity to share in the history and accomplishments of NASA's remarkable Space Shuttle Program. These facilities we've chosen have a noteworthy legacy of preserving space artifacts and providing outstanding access to U.S. and international visitors."
NASA also announced that hundreds of shuttle artifacts have been allocated to museums and education institutions.
- Various shuttle simulators for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum of McMinnville, Ore., and Texas A&M's Aerospace Engineering Department
- Full fuselage trainer for the Museum of Flight in Seattle
- Nose cap assembly and crew compartment trainer for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio
- Flight deck pilot and commander seats for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston
- Orbital maneuvering system engines for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center of Huntsville, Ala., National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum
If you want to look back into time, review history and learn something new about NASA's Space Shuttle Program, visit the Official NASA Space Shuttle site.
What's Replacing The Space Shuttle
So what is going to replace NASA's Space Shuttle? SpaceX, America's first privately-owned and funded (albeit with some government loan guarantees) spacecraft company. SpaceX launches will cost 40% of what they cost using the Space Shuttle, and the different Falcon rocket configurations provide greater safety, flexibility and lower costs per launch, depending on the size of each payload. The Dragon spacecraft was designed to carry both astronauts and freight, and both the Falcon rocket and spacecraft are recoverable and reuseable. I have covered SpaceX in numerous blog articles. You'll find most of them HERE. Enjoy.
Courtesy of an article dated July 22, 2011 appearing in Fast Company Design