A report released Tuesday by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board indicates that NASA failed to take into account design flaws discovered after the 1986 Challenger Tragedy that may have contributed to the recent explosion of the Columbia. With a laundry list of flaws in the shuttle, now is the time for NASA to take significant measures to advance the technology used in the shuttle program.
A comparison of the technology used in the initial space shuttle launch with that available to NASA today suggests the existing shuttle technology has been utilized to the fullest extent possible. For example, the computer used to type this editorial houses processing capability far exceeding that of the computer used to guide the shuttle in the sky. When the Space Shuttle Enterprise was initially introduced in 1976, its craftsmanship and technology was, at the time, mind-blowing. The current fleet of shuttles are still based on the original model. If you are stuck in traffic and notice a 1976 Ford Pinto in the next lane, picture it being launched into space.
A new space shuttle design is vital if we want to continue to advance our knowledge and technology. It is amazing that a program responsible for pioneering ideas like Velcro and plastics could stall in the advancement of its own equipment. In the long-term, time and money could be saved if NASA were to revamp the shuttle. A newer model would allow a greater frequency of launches and reduce maintenance.
The shuttle is the link to Earth for numerous NASA projects. By improving the technology of the shuttle itself, the technology of these projects would in turn be advanced.
In NASA’s golden era, technological breakthroughs were a by-product of space exploration. Innovation is unlikely to derive from the current focus on maintaining existing shuttle technology. A new space shuttle is the best place to reverse this trend. Only then will NASA’s technological advancements and influence compare to its illustrious past.