An open letter to the American public:

The Columbia tragedy has affected all of us who grew up on the promise and hope of the Space Age. Our response has been a mix of idealism and cynicism, of doubt and faith. We understand that we would do the brave dead a great disservice if we did not examine ourselves and the ideas for which they sacrificed themselves. So let us examine, with as critical an eye as need be, what the space program promised us, what it has delivered, and what our other options may be.

I was only six years old when Columbia first launched in 1981. I remember Walter Cronkite talking about the dawning new day of spaceflight Columbia heralded, and the new vistas we would explore. It was a grand dream, a dream I spent my childhood believing. There is only one problem with it: it is untrue.

The original conception of the Shuttle was grand: a versatile “space truck” capable of servicing everything from low Earth orbit (roughly five hundred miles) to geosynchronous orbit (roughly 22,000 miles) to the Moon (roughly 250,000 miles) and everything in between. We—the American public—were promised a reusable spacecraft which could be launched 26 times a year, would be cheap enough for us to build ten of them, would be safe enough for tourism, and the total cost to put a pound of material into orbit would be under one hundred dollars.

Those were the promises. Let’s look at the reality.

Comparisons between sts and unmanned rocketry

It is worthwhile to compare the Shuttle with the Proton–M rocket the Russians are currently using. The Proton–M carries a little less into orbit (48,500 pounds versus 58,000), but costs only $100 million apiece. A (disposable) Proton–M rocket costs less than a quarter as much as a (rebuildable) Shuttle flight, and carries five–sixths the weight. The Shuttle is slightly more reliable than the Proton–M, but the Proton–M has the significant benefit of being unmanned. If a Proton–M suffers a failure, the only people who get hurt are the insurance underwriters. When the Shuttle suffers a failure, seven lives are snuffed out and untold lives affected.

Why are we risking lives just to put satellites into orbit, when we can do the exact same task more cheaply, more efficiently, and with greater safety through unmanned rocket launches?

Email me.