Space Shuttle: United States and China

Right before the STS-133 mission launch, Chinese website NetEase published a special report on the U.S. space shuttle: “Space Shuttle: a chicken rib that is hard to get rid of“. It represents the overall view of points from Chinese side on space shuttle. Here bellow is my translation. Some of the translation is based on Google translator.

It is worth to point out that China once considered to design and develop space shuttle as well.

In April 1986, a group of aerospace experts headed by Tu Shancheng as chief scientist was established in Beijing. Its main topic was the future of high-tech aerospace industry, especially the development of manned space technology. It set up two subgroups: one on large scale rocket and space transportation system (863-204), and the other on manned space station and its applications (863-205). In June 1986, COSTIND ordered to conduct the proof of space shuttle. The Aviation industry Department ordered its 601 Institute to conduct the research. This institute submitted a design of space shuttle that horizontally take off. This conceptual research is named “869 engineering”. Some other institutes submitted their proposals as well. The design requirements are: Payload mass: 7 t, astronauts: 3-5, autopilot, orbit: 300-500 km, duration: 2-7 days. There were four somewhat detailed proposals. On January 12, 1987, Ding Henggao of COSTIND wrote a letter to state council and said: “First, arrange a two-year research phase on concepts! At this stage, on the one hand the concept of tracking the results of conceptual research of foreign countries; on the other hand, utilize existing technology conduct the necessary tests, computation and analysis of the conceptual research!” Finally, China gave up the attempt of space shuttle development based on its observation on the situation in the United States.

    Introduction: As the holder of the best safety record and most missions of NASA space missions, Discovery’s this farewell travel will draw a period for the U.S. space shuttle stage — except Endeavour will fulfill the other two missions in early 2011, all shuttles will be retired. Although they are almost seen as a symbol of human space exploration and totem, but because of its poor safety record, and far beyond the expected operating costs and the aging rate, it has become a chicken rib that is hard to get rid of for the United States and NASA. In the “post-shuttle” era, the private space companies will become the protagonist of future U.S. manned space flight, and era of the government’s taking on everything is over.
    Space Shuttle: The product of the Cold War era

In April, 1969, right before the costly “Apollo” program was near the end, NASA, while being Indulging in the passion of the space exploration, believed in the need to build a reusable space vehicle. In January, 1972, “Space Shuttle” design was born. On April 12, 1981, NASA’s first space shuttle Columbia took off for the first time, conducted a two-day flight, verified its ability to safely launch and landing returns. This is not only for the then Soviet Union’s manned space deter, but also means that humanity has entered a new era in spaceflight.

Space Shuttle
US-Soviet space shuttle comparison, Soviet’s Buran on the right¡£
Space Shuttle

Space Shuttle Endeavour is carried back to base after its landing.

The original design goal: To reuse in order to reduce operating costs


In the seventies and eighties of last century, the U.S. manned space development is in full swing era. After the United States get the top spot in the world in the space race by its Apollo moon landing activities, it also to stimulated the U.S. space exploration ambitions, and increased the frequency of subsequent manned missions into space. Intensive pace exploration projects made NASA felt that it was not economically enough, because manned spacecraft with a rocket launcher needed a huge rocket, and they are all one-time reuse. Based on the consideration of funding, it was desired to create a new spacecraft. NASA’s third administrator Thomas O. Paine once believed that space shuttle could be reused and hence reduced the cost and it didn’t need to make a new rocket for each launch; moreover, he believed that it needed only two weeks for the preparation to launch, must faster than rockets.


The space shuttle was the symbol of the advanced space technology, it is a milestone after Apollo Moon landing, and it took the responsibility for manned spaceflight and to be the rival to the former Soviet Union for political propaganda. The concept of space shuttle had once be considered by many space powers. For example, the ESA and Japan designed their own space shuttle. The former Soviet Union even made a space shuttle Buran of its own “intellectual property”, but “coincidentally”, its shape is almost a clone of the U.S. space shuttle.


Carrying capacity in space has no matching, the science and technology outcomes affected human being for third years


When NASA tried to convince the US government on the development of space shuttle, it said that space shuttle had many advantages. Not only it could have multiple reentries and repeated uses, but also, it could deliver seven astronauts plus 30 tons of cargo to space. On return, it could take 14.5 tons of payload from orbit. This kind of payload could guarantee that the space shuttle could send Chinese “Shenzhou” or Russian “Soyus” to space directly. its maximal load is ten times of other vehicles. It can capture the other aircraft, such as space satellites, and can allow astronauts to conduct EVA for spacecraft maintenance, and can bring them back to earth.


space shuttle increased the power of space exploration. In the past 30 years, all the by-products of space activities as well as relevant scientific discoveries have crucial effects on human life and activities on earth. No matter the ISS or the imaginary lunar base, they all need the support of such a heavy payload bay of space shuttle — otherwise there is no way to send the large-scale construction space machinery to orbit. The United States has six space shuttles. Except the first one, the Enterprise, is saved to a museum after testing, all other five space shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, carried space transportation tasks. Atlantis carried 32 such tasks and tops all of them for international cooperation. And Discovery has the highest number of launches. It becomes the most famous representation of all space shuttles for its significant contributions.


weaknesses is exposed and has become a “chicken rib”

After Obama comes to power, the U.S. government stopped the plan to send the American back to the Moon, and starts to eye on Mars for the space exploration. For services in the near-Earth orbit, space shuttle has no use. Meanwhile, the original goal was not achieved after space shuttles are used. Therefore, when the construction of the 16 countries participated International Space Station is completed, the U.S. decided to give up space shuttle program. In addition, the high operating costs and low safety factor is the main reason for the shuttle to be retired.

space shuttle
Shuttle Atlantis is ducked with the ISS
space shuttle
In 1986, “Challenger” space shuttle exploded after liftoff
space shuttle
In the early time, NASA underestimated the cost of space shuttle launch, now it is about $450 million (error in NetEast article)

Low safety factor: two shuttle explosions among five, have killed 14 astronauts


Because of its repeated uses, the degree of technology difficulties, the level of technology complexity, the easiness of damages of parts of space shuttle are much higher. From launch, ascent, orbiting to reentry and landing, all phases experience extremely severe environment. Its weakness is exposed during the period of its usage. Its system is not as simple as combining manned spacecraft and rocket together. When the cost of a single run is high, risks can not be ignored. Launch frequency is reduced to 5 a year from its designed 24 times a year. Its rate of accidents is very high. Among the five space shuttles that the U.S. had, two were exploded or disintegrated during missions. Fourteen astronauts lost their lives as a result. Different from single use of rockets and spacecraft, the engines of space shuttles are designed for multiple uses. The lifetime of engines accumulate up to several hours. This is also a hidden risk to its missions: with the increase of the missions, there are more and more potentially dangerous.


Launch costs are high: Flight time spent $ 500,000,000, exceeding the design expectations by hundreds of times


The United States had developed and put into operation five shuttles, each with R & D costs 2 billion U.S. dollars, total launch hundred times, a cost per flying up to 500 million U.S. dollars, but also return a great deal of maintenance time and effort, which makes NASA financially overwhelmed. Although the original intention of the space shuttle was proposed to reduce the development and launch of the manned space flight in the process of spending, but Americans in the process of implementing this plan only to find the truth is not so. Data show that from early 1985 to October 1988, the space shuttle launch prices increased by 85%, that is, each launch costs soared to $ 90,000,000. This takes the original design completely contrary to the NASA space shuttle budget. NASA in determining the structure and layout of the space shuttle, the space shuttle launch costs have been estimated as 100 U.S. dollars per lb, each launch costs no more than 6 million U.S. dollars.


Although NASA has taken various measures to save money, but the development cost overruns year after year. In September 1978, NASA announced that space shuttle’s development cost would increase by 8% -9% than the original plan. In April 1980, NASA said the shuttle program costs would increase to 8.9 billion dollars. Under this situation, NASA had to repeatedly ask Congress to increase funding. At the time, the Carter administration was thinking that space shuttle was good for national security, good for scientific research and had a high value for commercial development. Therefore it basically had no objection to the additional funding. So the cost problem of space shuttle project was able to be solved. In addition, the shuttle landing site was far from the launch site. Each time when landed, shuttle had to be taken back to the launch site by a large aircraft thus increased maintenance costs. These conditions were away from the better image that NASA initially expected, suggesting that the economic benefits of space shuttle were greatly reduced.


the space shuttle is aging much faster than expected, forced to significantly shrink the mission


At the same time the use of the space shuttle, NASA discovered the same with the development and launch costs, space shuttle maintenance and running costs are also rising straight up. For example, space shuttle flight in 1984, the cost was 150-200 million U.S. dollars, and in the commercial launch of the maximum compensation that could be only up to $ 71,000,000. More importantly, NASA found that, satellite launches by shuttle launch satellites cost more than using rockets to launch satellites. Therefore, NASA decided not to contract commercial payload launch task after 1988, and to reduce the number of shuttle flights per year to 9 times or so. According to the plan the U.S. space shuttle life was up to 20 years, and each should be flying a 100 times. And as of today, five space shuttle flights add up to a total of 132 times, of which two exploded in flight, two have been seriously over time in service.


And the space shuttles are aging faster than expected. Even though the number of missions is reduced to almost 1/4 (note: not reduced to by 1/4) of originally expected, the damages and aging increased. The maintenance costs are very expensive. Especially after the “Columbia” space shuttle crash (2003) occurred, the inspection of thermal protection costs increased. Since the first flight of “Discovery” in 1984, small states occur frequently, fuel tank insulation foams drop off. The external fuel tank’s liquid hydrogen transfer line leaks, etc. This has led to strengthening the inspection and maintenance tasks that a dragging its feet before each mission. As a result, mission schedule is delayed again and again.

    Transformation of space transport after the space shuttle era

In the 21st century, The United States renewed interest in spacecraft, believing that is safer than the shuttle and has much lower cost. The United States is now developing a new generation of manned spacecraft, “Orion” Exploration Vehicle and plans to put into use after 2015. The U.S. government turns its attention to deep space exploration of asteroids and Mars. This also contributed to the enthusiasm of private airlines companies. Some U.S. media believe that the private space companies will become the protagonist of future U.S. manned space flight, and era of the government’s taking on everything is over.

space shuttle
NASA is testing the Orion spacecraft which was once a part of the constellation plan to return back to the moon.
Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic initiates space tourist. Pictured is Spaceship 2.
space shuttle
A company launched the “Lynx” was space travel route map.

On national level: Manned mission to Mars, Space shuttle has no place to play a role


In February this year, the Obama administration announced a new space program, which proposed to cut “Constellation” introduced by the former President Bush to return to the moon, it will promote deep space exploration to new areas: manned flights to asteroids then Mars. Obama believes that the future of the United States is not in low-Earth orbit space, rather, the need to move further afield. According to Obama’s plan, the U.S. plans to send an astronaut to an asteroid in 2025. So as near-Earth space shuttle manned aircraft was developed in the plan no longer useful. According to the Authorization bill passed by the Government, NASA needs to initiate a new heavy-duty rocket development work in 2011. By using the current active space shuttle and the results of “Constellation,” it targets for successful development in 2016. NASA administrator Bolden said in a written statement, that Obama’s plan will promote the agency to shift the focus to reload onto the launch vehicle, the Mars astronauts into more depth. Obama government will fund for the project to NASA $ 58,000,000,000. During the U.S. economic downturn that led to monetary tightening in the current budget deficit, NASA can only comply with the new political party’s expectation for space exploration, take on the more ambitious Mars exploration program. Then the astronomical cost of funds for the space shuttle program was forced to be suspended.


On business level: The United States encourages private space program. Boeing and other companies compete for space transportation market


The US government claims that it encourages private sectors to build and launch space vehicles after the space shuttles retire. NASA even showed intention to save money by renting private spacecrafts to send its astronauts to space (the ISS) to conduct more “cutting edge” of outer space exploration activities. Just as the US Army was replaced by private aviation companies in the past, the voice of “privatization” has a long history in the US space transportation sector. Before 2020, the US urgently needs a private company to assume the task of taking astronauts to the international space station. Its mode of operation is the same as the US rent from the Russian spacecraft to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station. At this time, the intended American companies as the space taxi include Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Analysts pointed out that these two giants have the technologies to build large rockets and spacecraft, they are undertaking a large number of military and civilian satellite launch missions, but simply have not developed manned spaceflight test it yet. In addition, some internet upstarts are also eager to participate in space launch activities, and they’ve spent a huge amount of money to build their own rockets and spacecrafts.


In fact, private manned mission industry in the United States is gradually mature. There have been several commercial companies making plans of space tourists. Even though there are commercial travel services, they are in fact a proof that the U.S. private enterprises to develop spacecraft has reached certain level. According the AP news, Spaceship 2 of Virgin Galactic will bring the first group of space tourists to space in 2011. This spaceship is taken to high altitude by a special airplane and release from there. Moreover, private companies do not need the financial support of state and government. On the other hand, they have their own budget and sponsors to make new type of space vehicles — the investment to Spaceship 2 has reached 40 billion dollars. In addition, many billionaires who are interested in space hotels have reserved their rooms in this type of plans. a person in charge of private tourist industry indicated that an anonymous billionaire has provided 30 million dollars in start-up capital for their space hotel project.


Whether from a technical or from the financial point of view, private aviation is more adequate than NASA. And in February of this year, Obama administration proposed a new space plan which encourages private enterprises to invest in space. NASA administrator Charles Bolden said, while the US budget constraints such that the funding to develop space technology is in serious shortage, we need to allow full involvement of the private sector to change NASA’s status so that it plays important role in manned space missions.

    Space Shuttle is a product of a time as the cultural symbol of human exploration of space. Despite its birth place with all its imperfections, They has played a very important role in promoting the international space station construction and maintenance and in space exploration. In the moment, the country’s space race has been even more biased in favor of horizontal cooperation. At the same time how to find a more economical and practical and safe spacecraft is a new target in many countries. The United States, once in the forefront of the times may actually choose to cooperate with private sector as Obama said, or with other emerging space powers to develop new space vehicle, such as China. The space shuttle, however, only needs to stay in the museum for good.

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3 Responses to “Space Shuttle: United States and China”

  1. The Universe Pictures | Asteroids |The Universe Pictures Says:

    […] Space Shuttle: United States and China « Paviavio […]

  2. Bill Penick Says:

    Intriguing blog post. I know I’m a little late in posting my comment but the blog made a lot of sense and I enjoyed it. I can’t say that I agree with all the points you made about our space program but it was decidedly enlightening! I run a small US company that manufactures a line of collectible political gifts that commemorate the great leaders, speeches and events of American politics. I’m trying to create American jobs so I hope you don’t mind me including my link in this post. I’m always looking to promote our American made products and I still believe America just keeps getting better and better in spite of our current difficulties. I’m not sure if my earlier post was received so I’m trying again. BTW… I’m a frequent visitor to your blog and will be back soon. Thanks again for a great article and your positive mentioning of a great leader like Reagan!

  3. World Spinner Says:

    Space Shuttle: United States and China « Paviavio…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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