| NASA has spent 30yr sitting on their hands
That's unfair! they did amazing feats of robotic exploration, which is a prerequisite of human space travel. We could deliver a human to Mars today: the hard part is to sustain them there and how to return them.
I'll grant you that B-52's are still flying, but they are at revision H. Numbers beyond 100 were used, and then restarted at the B-1, so at least a hundred airframes have been investigated since the B-52, and the useful ones have seen steady upgrades and revisions. State-of-the-art is the F-35 (revision C).
That does not include the air force's contributions to radar, surveillance, and data encoding and recording, not to mention their own fleet of space platforms and a school of engineering and management.
The army and navy have moved up considerably as well. Weapons and battlefield communications are not comparable to WWII or even Vietnam.
NASA has spent 30yr sitting on their hands, and now wonder why their fingers are numb. They've degenerated to become the 1-trick pony of technology.
This is a very interesting way of looking at the question. I hadn't really thought about it from this perspective. Back then, I was fresh out of high school. Now I have a child preparing to enter college.
But can we really compare the space shuttle with electronics? Aerospace tends to move on a very different timescale than much of the rest of the world. The current Russian space vehicle design is a contemporary to Apollo. The B-52 is older than I am. Much of the general aviation fleet is just as old, or at least based on designs first laid out in the years just prior to or just after WWII.
The "wrong" with the space shuttle is that is captures a single point in technology-time, and that point is long forgotten. The first launch was in 1981 -- I was on the beach.
Nearly simultaneously the PC was introduced. You'll remember that model: it was the one that literally had a big red switch on the side, and even that allusion has faded into the past.
Since that time, Winchester disks have moved on to SATA, and "tribology" has become a recognized engineering field. The 8-inch floppy disk was approaching obsolescence even then. If the "save" icon didn't look like a 1.44MB disk, that would have left our conciousness, too.
Since that time, flash memory was invented, flourished as a fad, gone mainstream, and reached fully-mature status in our SoC's. People now talk about FRAM and many other techniques that in just a couple years will replace flash.
Since that time, EDA tools have given us incredible design methodologies. When the shuttle first launched, I was working in a lab where ICs were created with rubylith, and PCB layout used flexible gauze-tape. Some years ago, I saw one of those large-format cameras sitting in a junk heap outside of the Arizona State University used-equipment facility (it was large enough to recognize it from the freeway). Yes, it was very sad.
In 1981, as I was waiting for the launch, we visited the space museum. Even then the Saturn V on display (just a decade old) was rusty and overgrown with weeds. It went to rust in 10 years, and the shuttles have had 30. NASA should have recognized then that technology was on the move, but instead they anchored themselves on a platform firmly cemented in time, a platform that has become a cement overcoat.
"spread-spectrum clocking a clever engineering technique, or is it a down-and-dirty cheat"
I don't have any expertise in spread-spectrum techniques, but the question of clever engineering vs. down-and-dirty cheat / hack is something that I ponder from time to time. I know that's not exactly what you're looking for, but it's a good basis for an argument as well.
I certainly value the concept of designing problems out from the start. I think that's the most secure and robust route to take. However, sometimes an inexpensive and quick short-cut can be the best approach as well. If a problem can be solved in a small fraction of the time and / or a small fraction of the cost, is that not good engineering as well?
Thanks for your article. To keep it simple, nothing really went wrong with the Space Shuttle program. What I mean is that the program was good, but the Space Shuttle program management team failed to keep up with changes in the Country. Change is never easy. The Space Shuttle program management team failed to stay in touch with the American people. Think about it, the only time you would hear anything on TV about the Space Shuttle program is when they were going to complete a mission in space. Otherwise, it was just like another day at the office. With that large amount of money being spent and people lives on the line after every launch, the feeling people had during the 60ís about space travel is not present today. Therefore, the Space Shuttle program management team should have developed a business plan for the future. A plan that would excite the American people and allow the average person to travel to outer space at a reasonable price. Forget about going to the moon. It is now time to focus on how we live on a space station. Lesson learned, engineers must not only focus on the technology; but also hired personnel to foucs on a good (business) plan and (marketing) media plan to reach the American people.
Some suggested additional questions:
1) Do people with an engineering background make better world leaders? It is something you see more in other countries (such as China or Russia) than you see in the U.S.
2) What do you think of the Fermi paradox?
I would posit for the second question that the current evidence supports two assumptions. One, that the prevalence (and survival time) for technological civilizations is closer to the low end of current estimates (maybe a 10% of 1 such civilization in any given galaxy). Second, there are no FTL technologies. With these assumptions, and the ever-decreasing light horizon in the universe, if we ever met an alien civilization, it would only happen once because we would be consumed as they spread like a virus across the cosmos.
Thank you for the excellent post. I guess I would of course answer the questions that most interest me:
1) What went right (or wrong) with Space Shuttle program, and why didn't it live up to its initial promise?
Like many other people, I would characterize the shuttle program by comparing it to the Apollo program. I am old enough to remember the shuttle as it was initially envisioned (before the political and budget compromises), then it more closely resembled Virgin's Spaceship One (although much larger). The idea was to make spaceflight as cheap and ubiquitous as aircraft by making a system where nothing but fuel was used up. They had already preliminarily proven the concept with the X-15 in the 60's, but NASA had decided (on what I think was solid engineering considerations) to instead go with existing ICBM technology with capsules. Where NASA made it's big mistake was to try to somehow combine the X-15 with the ICBM/capsule configuration. If someone had sketched the shuttle configuration on a napkin and showed it to me after I got my first degree in aerospace engineering (and I had never seen it before) I would have told them that, while you might be able to get it to fly, it would be a very unfeasible system to operate. In the end the NASA politicians should have just told the engineers what they wanted to achieve, and let them pick either improving the ballistic-capsule technology or develop a new (pure) X-15 based approach.
I would answer some of the other questions, but I may have already gone on too long. If you would humor me a little further, I would propose two additional debate questions in my next comment.
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