Why NASA Shut Down the Space Shuttle



After the upcoming flight of the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station, the shuttle will not fly again, marking the end of a 30-year program of flight. This last leap into space will be followed with retirement for the shuttle program, and the once-spacebound shuttles will be sent to museums to serve a far more terrestrial career. Many have questioned this retirement or actively campaigned against it, seeking to preserve humanity�s connection to the world outside the atmosphere. In the days before the final mission, it is worthwhile to look into the causes behind the retirement and to examine why the process is too far along to stop it.

The shuttle is older technology, built and repaired to nearly exactly the specifications that were set for them in the late 1970s. Even though there have been known flaws in the construction of the shuttle for decades, actually repairing or upgrading any given part has proven difficult � because the shuttle is such a delicate system, even seemingly minor changes have caused huge problems. At one point, the switch of an adhesive nearly lead to the destruction of one shuttle when it turned out the chemicals reacted badly with the material of the shuttle. One can imagine the damage a more significant change would do if not thoroughly checked again and again. Therefore, NASA has been forced to choose between using technology they knew was flawed or seeking funding to perform massive, possibly impossible retrofits on the shuttles.

Knowing this, NASA has been slowly shutting down the shuttle program for four years or so now, slowly phasing out distributors and suppliers and relying only on the stock that was left to repair the shuttles for their last few missions. This is why it is too late to shut down the process of retirement. As mentioned before, most of the specifications of the shuttle are vintage. Because of this, only a few specialized manufacturers make the parts needed, and many of these relied on NASA�s purchases to keep their fairly small business going. Many of the dropped contracts with suppliers cannot be renewed because the suppliers are now out of business entirely. While new contractors or suppliers could be found, this would be incredibly expensive, require the same extensive (and possibly excessive) testing as a full upgrade, and generally complicate or delay the repair and launch of the shuttle for what might well be years. There is simply no way to regain the ability to order supplies and parts that would not take multiple years and millions and millions of dollars, and NASA is rapidly burning through the last of their own stock of parts.

In short, the shuttle program, while of course wonderful while it lasted, has become a dinosaur and a burden. With prohibitive costs, ancient and dangerous technology, and a need for suppliers for parts that no longer exist, the shuttle program simply can no longer be sustained. While it is sad that humanity will lose the beauty of space for a while, this is in many ways a move for the best. Freeing up the funding and time that was eaten by the shuttle may well allow NASA to build a better, more advanced space program � and sometime soon, humanity may well launch itself into the stars once again.





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