It was the end of an era. As a consultant to NASA, I was at Kennedy Space Center and witnessed the launch of Atlantis as it began its final trip into outer space as the last remaining space shuttle of the US fleet. Hopefully, this final shuttle flight will not mark the end of American-manned space flight, which would be tragic on many different levels.
On a more promising note, this final shuttle flight also marks the end of an era of space-launch vehicles designed, manufactured, and supported using old methods. The space shuttle was designed and built with the tools, processes, and practices of its era, which had little, by comparison to today, digital computing capability. Those design, manufacturing, support tools, processes, and practices consisted of 2D blueprints; siloed development requiring expensive rework; numerous expensive physical prototypes; and design, engineering, manufacturing, and operation functions that operated by throwing information over the wall to each other. The product development era of the space shuttle was, in general, expensive, time consuming, and inefficient.
The digital tools, processes, and practices of the 21st century are a quantum leap from the 1970s when the space shuttle was designed and built. We have moved into the digital realm where we can develop 3D models, digitally analyze their characteristics and performance, and fully simulate the manufacturing processes and support activities. We can do this not in the sequential, siloed fashion of the old era, but we can integrate design, manufacturing, and support. We want and need to avoid the unnecessary costs and time delays of designing something that cannot be manufactured or supported -- something that often happened in the old era.
This is not to take anything away from the accomplishments of the space shuttle. It was a marvelous technological achievement for its time. However, in today's environment of constrained resources, creating a space shuttle replacement using the atom-based tools and methods of the 1970s for designing, engineering, manufacturing, and supporting a new vehicle is unaffordable, for both NASA and for private contractors.
In order for NASA to be successful in creating a new space vehicle, it will need to create two vehicles. It will first need to create a digital space vehicle that it can model in 3D, evaluate using digital analysis, manufacture using digital simulation, and assemble and support using digital models and scenarios. Only when NASA has integrated the design, engineering, manufacturing, and support of this "digital twin," as a colleague of mine at NASA refers to it, can it afford to realize the physical space vehicle itself. Even if NASA contracts out major aspects of a new vehicle, it will need this digital capability to have the requisite visibility to provide timely oversight and control of what is one of the most complex vehicles man can produce.
Watching the launch of Atlantis evoked a certain sense of sadness in witnessing the end of an illustrious era in space exploration. However, accompanying it was a sense of optimism that it opens up an opportunity to build even better spacecraft that are more affordable, better integrated, better manufactured, and better supported because of 21st-century digital capabilities.
Welcome to this new era!