The End of an Era: The Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

Source: ©2012 Reflections of a Rational Republican

September 21st may have marked the end of an era for America’s manned space program. The space shuttle Endeavour flew a final victory lap over California. The pictures above and below show the shuttle passing over Alcatraz and by the Transamerica Building in San Francisco, respectively. Ironically, NASA must now rely on Russian spacecraft to ferry Americans to the International Space Station.

Source: ©2012 Reflections of a Rational Republican

The good news is that technology has come a long way since the lunar landing in 1969. In fact, it has come so far that the typical cell phone today has more computing power than all of NASA did in 1969. However, the demographic tidal wave that threatens to consume government expenditures via entitlement spending has made using American tax payer dollars on space exploration an increasingly untenable proposition. The government is funneling the scarce dollars it has to private organizations like the Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and the Boeing Company to shepherd NASA through the next stage of space exploration.

It’s still hard to believe that America put a man on the moon over forty years ago. It’s even harder to believe that America will be capable of doing anything remotely comparable to that forty years hence.

That said, I’m confident that America will put more effort into exploring the stars as soon as the Chinese reignite the space race.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
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12 Responses to The End of an Era: The Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

  1. middleagedhousewife says:

    I remember watching from the windows of my high school as the 747 that was carrying the Columbia, made the approach for an over night stay at Kelly AFB after the very first Shuttle mission. We got to go on base later that afternoon to walk around the shuttle and take pictures. I will miss the Shuttle program and I am especially saddened that the program was ended without another to take its place.

  2. Jeff Fordham says:

    Demograhpic tidal wave or not the space shuttle while spectacular in design and implementation, it was already outdated technology by the time the first gliding mock up was built in the mid 70s. NASA chose an expensive system to try and get cargo into low earth orbit, and while I dig the whole idea of a reusable craft….. when you gaze upon the data on dollars spent per pound or kilogram to get your product into space…………the shuttle was yet another boondoggle. I agree that spin off technology from the shuttle program was great but it did not justify the huge expense. Let me quote some numbers on the shuttle:

    Space Shuttle incremental per-pound launch costs ultimately turned out to be considerably higher than those of expendable launchers: by 2011, the incremental cost per flight of the Space Shuttle was estimated at $450 million, or $18,000 per kilogram to low Earth orbit (LEO). By comparison, Russian Proton expendable launchers, still largely based on the design that dates back to 1965, are said to cost as little as $110 million, or around $5,000/kg to LEO. When all design and maintenance costs are taken into account, the final cost of the Space Shuttle program, averaged over all missions and adjusted for inflation, was estimated to come out to $1.5 billion per launch, or $60,000/kg to LEO. This should be contrasted with the originally envisioned costs of $118 per pound of payload in 1972 dollars ($1,400/kg, adjusting for inflation to 2011).

    In order to get the Shuttle approved, NASA over-promised its economies and utility. To justify its very large fixed operational program cost, NASA initially forced all domestic, internal, and Department of Defense payloads to the shuttle. When that proved impossible (after the Challenger disaster), NASA used the International Space Station (ISS) as a justification for the shuttle. Some speculate that, had NASA avoided the Shuttle program and instead continued to use Saturn and commercially available boosters, costs might have been lower, freeing funds for manned exploration and more unmanned space science. In particular, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin argued in a 2007 paper that the Saturn program, if continued, could have provided six manned launches per year — two of them to the moon — at the same cost as the Shuttle program, with an additional ability to loft infrastructure for further missions:

    Michael Griffin 2007: ” If we had done all this, we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for “ the next 50 years.” We would have decades of experience operating long-duration space systems in Earth orbit, and similar decades of experience in exploring and learning to utilize the Moon”

    I say they could not have done away with this program soon enough…………….cripes……..after all the whining here about government and costs………….this thing was a classic example government projects that have become uncontrolable monsters………I am surprised you would be so nostalgic for such a costly and outdated enterprise……………….while we are at it………….lets get a conversation going about another disgusting boondoggle…………the F-35 strike fighter @ 135 MILLION per plane (<– for fucks sake?) with a total project cost over the next 50 years of 1.51 TRILLION !

    • Jeff,

      All good points.

      I suspect that’s why NASA is looking to the private sector for solutions. That said, I’m not entirely convinced that private business can make a profit from providing services to NASA, except in the case of resource extraction from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Companies like Planetary Resources expect to do that in the next century.

      I also agree with you on the F-35. Even Republicans have referred to this aircraft as a “hanger queen.”

  3. lbwoodgate says:

    It’s been a great ride from the time I was able to watch on TV with others in my 6th grade class as Alan Shepard became the first American in Space to the 1969 moon walk and later with the construction of a space station. I know we need resources here to improve our economy but I hope we never lose sight of the need for knowledge about out planet, galaxy and Universe

  4. Scott Erb says:

    I remember Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra at Cape Kennedy (as it was called) as the Apollo flights took off, I recall as a young kid staying up late to watch the first steps on the moon (we bent over and watched between our legs since the first clips were upside down). I still hope that as we get out of this economic crisis breakthroughs in technology will allow us to reignite space exploration. Perhaps in cooperation with other states rather than in a race. Chinese-American space cooperation might be a really good thing for our already interdependent relationship.

    • Jeff Fordham says:

      I fondly remember Jules Bergman who was the science editor for ABC news…..they would call him in for an explanation of the technical aspects of what was going on at the time. He would hold up models on air …of the Apollo rocket and or the lunar landing craft and articulate their procedures by hand. As a model rocket fanatic as a child in the late 60s this just drew me in even more ! I remember taking my Estes rocket the WAC Corporal and mimicking Bergman the day command module Columbia went into lunar orbit before separation.

      Do you remember the pride you felt the day they landed on the moon? The whole world was just awestruck at the ability of the United States of America ………… have accomplished such a goal with the backing of all American citizens ….including the top 10% of earners who were paying 77% income tax to support this great nation. There was no such thing as off shore accounts to unpatriotically…..get away from a measly 34 % tax rate ! (if they even pay that) …..and “carried interest” as in income was unheard of ! It was all about the greatness of our nation and the possibilities…….no whining about job creators !
      I attended prep school outside of Philadelphia in the 1960s and had the pleasure of NASA astronaut Pete Conrad (who was an alum of my school) come into my history classroom and sit on the desk in the front of the room and talk about how …..with hard work and sacrifice you too could serve your nation as an astronaut or a test pilot. As a boy, it was probably one of the most exciting moments I can remember in my life. Conrad was in the second batch of astronauts NASA promoted after the original Mercury 7……..he was known as one of the “new 9 ”

      Things sure have changed today………..

    • Scott,

      I’m for cooperation, competition or co-opetition, basically anything that get the human race back into space. I suspect that the United States government continues to invest in space research. I just think most of it has been funneled to the DoD. Therefore, it will be less public.

  5. the demographic tidal wave that threatens to consume government expenditures via entitlement spending

    … is, for the most part, not real.

    We get not-so-great results considering that we pay way more than anyone else in the world for health care.

    In 2007, the total spending for health care accounted for 16% of the country’s GDP, the highest share among the OECD and almost double the OECD average. On a per capita basis also the U.S. spent the highest with a total of $7,290 which is two-and-half times the OECD average. The public share of health care expenditure in the USA (45%) is less than any other OECD country. Despite spending the most, the U.S. provides health care coverage for only the elderly, disabled and some of the poor people. In comparison, the same amount is enough to provide universal health care insurance by the government for all citizens in other OECD countries. 35% of total health care expenditures is done by private health insurance which is the highest in OCED. Despite the high medical expenditure,there are fewer doctors per capita in the U.S. than most other OECD countries.

    Now, demographic factors are the leading cause of increases in Medicare spending in the near term (to around 2030). But in the long term, as the CBO has pointed out, “[t]he bulk of that projected increase in health care spending [on Medicare and Medicaid] reflects higher costs per beneficiary rather than an increase in the number of beneficiaries associated with an aging population.” When you see Paul Ryan holding up a chart that says we’re infinity-kabillion dollars in debt by 2082, that’s the driving factor– increase health care costs. And remember, at the least over the past few years, Medicare has done a better job holding down costs than private health insurance.

    Substantiation here.

    As for Social Security, Kevin Drum explained a little while back:

    What’s important is that, unlike Medicare, Social Security costs don’t go upward to infinity. They go up through about 2030, as the baby boomers retire, and then level out forever. And the long-term difference between income and outgo is only about 1.5% of GDP. This is why I keep saying that Social Security is a very manageable problem. It doesn’t need root-and-branch reform. The trust fund makes up Social Security’s income gap for the next 30 years, so all it needs is some modest, phased-in tweaks that cut payouts by a fraction of a point of GDP and increase income a fraction of a point.

    Recall also that we’re paying less in taxes than we have since around the Truman administration, and that we tax & spend among the very lowest in the OECD, along with Australia.

    Do we have policy issues to address, ones that will require some tough choices? Yes. Do we have a tidal wave of entitlement spending? No.

    • Jeff Fordham says:

      Most people don’t know that there is a huge loophole in the Social Security tax. Believe it or not, after $107K income you don’t pay the Social Security tax at all. This loophole is called the “cap.” The “cap” loophole is bigger than the looholes that let big corporations get out of paying their taxes because while not all corporations avoid taxes the “cap” applies to everyone making over $107K. Closing this loophole would fix all of Social Security’s so-called “problems.”
      Working people pay into their Social Security account from every dollar they earn but high-income earners only pay on a fraction of what they earn. Most people don’t make enough to take advantage of this loophole, so they don’t even know about this loophole. But once you reach $106,800 of income you stop paying anything into Social Security.

      The one solution that is seemingly off the table in plutocratic decision-making circles is called “raising the cap.” This means fixing the loophole that lets people making over $106,800 stop paying into the Social Security fund. This would, of course, solve the problem of any potential shortfall in Social Security and could even enable restoring a lower retirement age.

      You won’t see any Republican especially Mittens thinking about raising the cap or eliminating it completely…………..its not going to happen on their watch. They like the fact that the poor slobs out there have to pay 12.4% to SS…….while the super wealthy pay a rate that can be just fractions of their mega incomes……………course many of them are already using the “carried interest” scam to get around income taxes………..cause after all……they BELIEVE in American !

      Yes the SS cap is conveniently left out of the Republican talking points on SS solvency and the constant mantra that its broke is just a smokescreen.

  6. Freebus says:

    Yes, we should have started building the next stage of our space infrastructure 25 years ago, rather than continuing to rely only on the Shuttle for so much longer a span than was originally intended.

    That being said, the Shuttle was the most advanced manned spacecraft ever launched by mankind. Period.
    We salute her.

    Today, administration after administration continues to drop the ball on space exploration, technology, and human spaceflight. NASA under the Bush administration totally mangled and/or ignored the suggestions put forth in the VSE (Vision for Space Exploration); and under the Obama administration, it is now implementing a flawed plan loosely based on a flawed report (Augustine Commission).

    Dr. Paul D. Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and former member of the President’s Commission on the Implementation of U. S. Space Exploration Policy in 2004, spells out these reason for these repeated failures in the link below, along with an affordable, incremental, and sustainable path to building a space infrastructure and a return to human spaceflight. I think this should be *required* reading for anyone having the slightest input into NASA’s mission and budget:

    Click to access Objectives%20before%20architectures.pdf

    Also, he lays out his approach in further detail, including budget, tasks, Gantt chart, etc. here:

    Click to access Affordable_Lunar_Base.pdf

    We can only hope our representatives start listening to the wisdom of experts like Dr. Spudis, and the drafters of the VSE, and we can finally pave the way for a permanent return to space that is *vital* to maintain our nations security, as well as our economic and scientific superiority!

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