Shuttle Launch, and Replacement

I’ve got to say, congrats to the NASA team that got the shuttle into space again.

It must be very difficult to do these days.  I’m not talking about technically – launching a space shuttle is definitely technical accomplishment but it’s one that we know how to do now, after 100+ missions in the last 25 years. 

But the process of ushering Discovery through prep and testing and verification must be incredible.  Hierarchies of checklists and procedures to verify systems that test other systems.  Hundreds of sensors, all feeding data back to mission control.  And back at mission control, a huge team of people who really want the shuttle to launch, but a few people who are very worried about it.

The problem is complexity.  There are thousands of things that have to be right before the shuttle can launch.  Each one of those things has to be managed. 

If we can reduce the number of things that can go wrong, then fewer things will go wrong.

That’s why I’m looking forward to the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the shuttle’s replacement.

A big part of the CEV’s philosophy is simplicity.  For example, the shuttle can glide itself to a an unpropelled landing, which is very cool, but ultimately a smaller capsule with a parachue is a much simpler design, and much less likely to fail.  That’s what the CEV uses.

And rather than deal with foam falling off the fuel tank and hitting the heat shields, the CEV sits on top of the tank.  This means there is zero chance of anything falling off and hitting it.

The shuttle is scheduled to be decomissioned in 2010; the CEV is to be ready for manned flight in 2014.