A wrong turning in space

Twenty years on from Challenger, the whole space shuttle project remains a disaster

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Americans are about to mark the 20th anniversary of a tragedy that has proved to be one of their country's most costly technological blunders. On 28 January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger soared into the blue Florida sky and exploded 73 seconds after take-off. All seven of its astronauts were killed.

It was a great blow to American pride. The US, despite other political vicissitudes, was still then able to claim to be the world's premier space power. Weren't its robot probes roving the planets; wasn't there a US flag on the moon? With Challenger's loss, that astronautical pre-eminence started to look a bit shaky.

If only America had known. Twenty years later the situation looks a thousand times worse. The shuttle programme - having soaked up $150bn (for just over 100 flights) and cost 14 astronauts' lives - is on the brink of extinction. If axed, it will also carry off the problem-plagued $100bn International Space Station, which can be completed only with components flown in on the shuttle.

The sums are staggering, the technological mismanagement unbelievable. But how did it happen? What went so badly wrong, not just with Challenger, but with the whole space shuttle programme?

The answer, say analysts, can be traced to the spacecraft's birth. After the Apollo moon landings, Richard Nixon charged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) with designing a reusable spaceship for transporting men, women and machines into orbit. What they would do there was never defined: some vague vision, worthy of 2001, of earth orbit humming with human activity, was envisaged but never specified.

The agency made its plans and offered a choice: a highly expensive but easily operated spaceplane that would be fired into space from a manned, reusable jet aircraft; or a cheaper model, tricky to fly and even more costly to maintain, that would be launched from the ground, bolted to tanks of high explosives. The White House chose the latter: the space shuttle, the most complicated machine ever constructed, a flying leviathan with thousands of "mission-critical" parts. A failure of any one of these would be enough to doom a flight. In the case of Challenger, it was a seal in a solid fuel booster casing; with its sister ship Columbia, which crashed on re-entry in 2003, it was a loose piece of insulation that smashed into its fuselage.

"America decided to completely re-design the concept of a spaceship, instead of making steady incremental improvements to existing technology, a policy that the Russians have followed so successfully," says Howard McCurdy of American University in Washington. "In effect, we decided to ignore the lessons of the past, go back to the drawing board and start the whole space-flight business anew. We also tried to do it all on the cheap - with appalling consequences."

Not so much appalling, in fact; more like devilish and hellish, according to some disillusioned Nasa executives who have taken to referring to the space shuttle as Rosemary's Baby - on the grounds that it is a Satanic miscreant which could one day destroy those who have nurtured it.

And you can understand their view. Just consider the finances. Nasa's rem-aining shuttle fleet - Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour - needs a ground staff of 16,000 engineers to maintain it. Hence the $5bn-a-year maintenance bill, which has to be paid whether or not a shuttle flies. And for many years there have been no missions at all.

Since 2002, for example, there have been only two shuttle launches: the first brought the end of Columbia; the second was last year's Discovery "return to flight" mission, which nearly suffered a similar catastrophic destruction thanks to those loose insulation fragments. As a result, Nasa is now struggling to maintain its limping, battered fleet long enough for a final 18 missions, enough to complete the space station. Most analysts believe it will be a near-run thing.

"It just needs a few more bits of insulation to come loose and damage the shut-tle, and Nasa will have to cancel the programme," says McCurdy. "That could happen this year when Discovery goes back to space, in which case there will be no more shuttle flights and no more space station. Or it could happen after a dozen missions. In that case, the station might just get by on supplies from Russian rockets. It will be tight."

No matter when the shuttle is grounded, however, the sighs of relief from Nasa will be audible even in space. Nasa's chief, Michael Griffin, clearly hates the craft. It was "not the right path", he admitted recently. The design was "extremely aggressive and just barely possible".

Lose the shuttle, and Griffin will be able to save $5bn a year from his hideously stretched budget, money that he could then spend on taking America back to the moon, and then on to Mars. Good news for America, perhaps. Not much of an epitaph for the shuttle, however.

Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer

This article appears in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists