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This is a discussion thread for the greatest horror villain of our time, the Space Transportation System, more commonly known as the Space Shuttle. First, I want to say something positive about the Space Shuttle, and that's that it, and its offspring SLS, has one of the most ingenious launch arrangements out there. Sure, solids may not be the absolute best thing ever for manned spaceflight, but the "two high t/w boosters, one central core with mega-awesome high ISP high thrust engines" arrangement is seriously a great idea. The fact that they pulled it off is even more awesome.
Seriously, look at this shit. Doing a backflip at Mach 5 with the external tank still attached, NBD. Rumor has it that the scenario was possible in the sim with an intact shuttle, but in just about any case where you're doing an RTLS the shuttle most likely isn't intact (if it was you could just a transatlantic abort or something). There's also rumors that STS-1 was planned to be a test of the RTLS scenario, before John Young helpfully pointed out that was a retarded idea.
Shuttle takes a lot of criticism, and according to my most recent estimates, approximately 52.4% of it - globally - comes from me, so pay attention. I'm about to praise it. If you pay attention to spaceflight, you'll find that there's a couple of reasons to why we don't have colonies on other planets yet. One reason is that spaceflight isn't cheap. The other reason is that spaceflight isn't cheap because it isn't safe. Alright, so why isn't spaceflight cheap? Well, imagine building a wonderful, awesome, complex thing, with lots of fiddly moving bits, and then you send it off to do what it does, and it explodes and is destroyed. You'd be pretty bummed, right? Rockets are designed to do that every single time they fly. That big Saturn V rocket that took us to the Moon, it didn't come back. The only thing that did come back was that little thing at the top that looked like Madonna's tit, and none of those ever flew again, nor could they. But some rockets do come back, like Space Shuttle. Those require a huge number of man-hours to refurbish and bring back to flying condition, and sometimes, despite the best efforts of those folks, they break up over Texas anyway. Which brings me to my next point: spaceflight isn't cheap because it isn't safe. You know how awful paying insurance on your car is? Well, imagine paying insurance on a controlled explosion designed to throw something eight times faster than a rifle bullet. Even if it's not carrying dudes, that's probably not cheap. So spaceflight needs to become safer and surer, so the insurance premiums come down. It might help if we didn't let grandma drive the rocket; she's really too old to have a license. So we need a rocket that's safe and reusable, ideally. That's where the Shuttle comes in. Shuttle was neither safe, nor the kind of cheaply reusable we need, but it wasn't expendable, either. Shuttle had a lot of problems, but one thing it did genuinely contribute is experience with reusable systems. There are reusable hydrolox engines now that, without Shuttle, may never have existed. The Orbiter (that's the plane-looking bit) itself wasn't a dead end, either; the USAF's X-37B is currently flying, gaining us even more experience with reusable systems. There's a very old metaphor, that what we can do now is only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. This conveys the value of experience, of building on previous accomplishments to achieve something great. Brilliant minds and ideas, foolproof engineering (no such thing! snorts my old boss), and eureka! moments dominate our minds because they are the sexiest part of progress, but more valuable than all of those, is having the experience, the shoulder of the giant to stand on to go somewhere new. Shuttle, for all its faults, gave us an absolutely priceless body of experience in reusability (130 flights! That means a plurality of human flights into space have been on a reusable vehicle). Ultimately, it will be reusability and safety that open the door to space and let us explore the stars. Some have suggested it would have been better to not do Shuttle and instead do Apollo derived vehicles - there may be merit to this, but it must not be underestimated how important Shuttle has been in improving our understanding of reusability. Now, how do we do reusability? Well, here's an email I sent to my father exploring an idea about that: And as I said to him, Alright, your turn. Tell me everything that's wrong with what I just said.