The Shuttle and other half-baked aeronautical boondoggles

[reply to Vin Suprynowicz' February 1, 2003 This Bus Goes Nowhere]
Dear Vin,
It's probably no exaggeration to say that the space shuttle program and the space program in general could be the poster child for projects of human endeavor warped almost beyond all recognition by government meddling and military secret agendas.  That the whole thing was a big money-wasting contest to drive the Russians to bankruptcy has the ring of truth, and as wartime tragedies go, the occasional barbecued astronaut is easier to spin to the voting and taxpaying public than are endless reports of whole battalions slaughtered or sunk by the shipload. I would suggest a saber-rattling side to it as well -- getting a ton of anything into orbit and back with any degree of reliability is no mean feat, be it a ton of astronauts and their equipment or a ton of nuclear bombs.  The highly publicized launch of a manned spacecraft makes the dramatic point to anyone paying attention that it could just as well have been a multi-megaton nuclear warhead alighting gently on a neighborhood near them.  Even assuming that fissile heavy metals have millions of times the explosive efficiency of TNT, one or more multi-megaton nukes can still weigh several tons, so the ability to launch that kind of weight on a rocket is critical to a global nuclear delivery system.   I have heard it suggested that the Russians' supposed initial lead in the space race was due less to their better rocket-building and more to our better bomb-building, that is, ours were much better-designed and lighter, requiring less of a booster.
But why rockets, which are intrinsically dangerous and unreliable, especially given that the Air Force were already flying into space with airplanes at the inception of the Mercury program in the fifties, as portrayed in the film The Right Stuff?  Rockets, or ballistic missiles, happen to be the fastest way to get a nuclear payload to the other side of the planet, while an equivalent system based on aircraft could never provide reliable first-strike capability against a rocket-based system.  The safety factor of rockets doesn't matter from a military standpoint, so long as enough of the bombs hit their targets -- one simply overbuilds to cover the reliability shortfall.  We'll never know if aircraft would have led to a better, safer, cheaper way into space, since that avenue was scrubbed when the rocket-based space program began (at least as far as the public was concerned, anyway).
But why stop there?  Just for the sake of argument, why are airplanes shaped the way they are?  While a Frisbee can take a severe dog-chewing or even a shotgun blast and still fly just fine, a fraction of the equivalent damage to an airplane would send it crashing to the ground, probably in multiple pieces.  As a recent cover story in Popular Mechanics attests, it seems that the Nazis had a fairly mature flying disk technology, which we captured but kept secret until only recently, favoring development of winged aircraft instead.  Airplanes tend to be much more sensitive to damage or system failure and less stable than a flying wing or disk, but instability goes hand-in-glove with maneuverability, while a flying wing or disk tends to handle like an airborne boat.  Maneuverability is irrelevant, even wasteful, when hauling cargo or passengers, but critical to military applications where one may be shot at, pursued, or need to pursue, shoot at, or otherwise surprise an enemy in the air or on the surface.  This changed around 1980 when the advent of technologies like the Stinger anti-aircraft missile -- convenient, easy-to-use, shoulder-launched, very fast, very smart guidance system, thousands of them everywhere -- began to make it "kinetically impossible" to get out of the way of a missile which was very, very fast and possibly launched by surprise from very nearby.  At this point the buzz became "stealth" technology and warplanes like the B2 bomber, which happens to be a flying wing -- bird-shaped aircraft have lots of sharp edges and corners that give them a big radar signature while simpler shapes are easier to make "stealthy."
So, if you've ridden in (or crashed in) a commercial airliner, in a sense you've done volunteer duty as a Guinea pig in a gigantic aerospace industry effort to test and improve military aircraft, since all the manufacturers -- Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Fokker, Airbus, et al -- also make warplanes.  In fact, the 747 was originally built to be a military cargo jet, was rejected in favor of the C-130, but Boeing decided to go ahead and produce it commercially.  If commercial aviation had been the primary objective all along, it's not unlikely that the base design would be very different.  Just think how happy you'd be to step aboard a commercial airliner if you knew that there was a competing technology that was potentially more airworthy, more crashworthy, and generally more reliable (but with comparatively little or no military application)?
In short, involvement of the government-run military-industrial complex in aerospace has perverted not only the means but also the ends.  This outcome is inevitable, since military and civilian perspectives on engineering concepts such as reliability, for instance, are fundamentally and irreconcilably different.  One example is how Stalin's tanks were supposedly so badly built that they would break down after only an hour of continuous operation, but this was perfectly acceptable since under real battle conditions, a tank was sure to be hit and disabled by the enemy in far less time.  So any attempt to make them more reliable was simply a waste of resources better spent on building more tanks.  This is a great philosophy if success is defined only as getting there "The firstest with the mostest," as Confederate General Nathan Forrest termed it, but a frighteningly bad philosophy if you kiss loved ones good-bye as they board with anything more than just a hope of kissing them hello again, or if economics are at all an issue.  If we hadn't been doing one while pretending we were doing the other for the past fifty-odd years, the argument could be made that we would at least have penal colonies on Mars, the Moon, and in orbit, be actively mining the asteroids, and busily terraforming Mars by now, and perhaps a great deal more.  It is truly a shame and a waste.

1 comment:

  1. One thought I had about why the space shuttle was designed as "a space truck" that could take payloads up into space in its cargo bay and then return to earth to fly again was that it was perhaps less about taking payloads up and more about the ability to bring similar payloads down, e.g., captured Russian satelites. It's hard to see a reason not to just use rockets to put payloads into orbit if that is the only objective.