Goodbye Shuttle! Where do we go from here?

21 07 2011

Update: Congrats to Atlantis and her crew for a successful mission!

Shortly before 6 am July 21st, residents of southwestern Florida will be awoken by two sonic booms half a second apart. The Space Shuttle Atlantis’s calling card will be heard one final time before it touches down at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 am.

Why two booms? Because the shuttles are so long (122 ft) there is a boom from both the nose and tail and they arrive about a 1/2 second apart.

For Cosmoboy this final flight marks the end of an era. I remember exactly what I was doing the day the first shuttle mission launched – playing soccer in a cub-scout tournament. I was really upset that I had to miss the launch! But it didn’t matter, because even the second one got quite a bit of press, and the third. But I don’t think TVs in classes got turned on to watch launches beyond that.

I’ve written at length about the shuttle program before. I still feel the greatest success of the shuttle is the amazing repair work it did on the Hubble Space Telescope. It took spacewalks to new levels of sophistication, making astronauts actually perform operations with the dinky little screwdrivers used to fix computers. Amazing what they accomplished!

But the shuttle has had it’s critics. Truth be told, if all you care about is getting satellites into orbit you can do it much cheaper with disposable rockets. The shuttles absolutely spectacular mission success rating of 98.5%  puts it on par with the fabled Soyuz-U. But NASA was never able to bring costs down sufficiently to realize the 50 missions a year idea that was floating around at the beginning of the 1970s.

So where do we go from here? Economic downturns, lack of funds seem to putting an end to interest in venturing out into the unknown. The corporatization of space is well underway, and that shouldn’t be surprising and at some level it is a good thing. Low Earth Orbit is a car ride away straight up. But what about to the Moon or beyond? Most people think the fact that “it’s been done” means there is no interest in going back to the Moon or further out. The costs and the risks of manned missions to Mars are far beyond what any Presidential mandate could achieve. The Space Race ended a long, long time ago.

That’s the real reason for the downturn in the space program. With the end of the cold war, the political need for reaching the highest frontier has long gone. It isn’t so much about money – the US GDP in (2005 dollars) in 1970 was $4.3 trillion, in 2010 it was $13.2 trillion. The US was in Vietnam in 1970, today it’s in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all the arguments that NASA is expensive, it really fades into comparison with the US military expenditure on supporting and creating air conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq ($20 billion). The 1.2 trillion that have been spent on the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq make the budget overrun on the JWST look like pocket change.

But rant over on that point. Military operations are expensive whatever the country. (Oh, did I mention that while there is one Hubble Space Telescope, the military was given funding about 15 “keyhole” satellites all of which supposedly use very similar designs to the HST, sorry I said I would stop! 🙂 )

Unlike many of my colleagues I remain a supporter of manned exploration of space. Astronauts know the risks and we celebrate them for having the nerve to do what they do. Space exploration is never going to be safe. It’s never going to be cheap. I for one am not convinced the commercialization of space is going to magically fix the problem of an ever dwindling tax base for public programs in the US (the rich continue to get richer and pay lower taxes – just ask Warren Buffet what he thinks).

And that brings me to the biggest problem facing US space exploration – there is no overriding vision for what they want to achieve. Let’s face it, it’s never been first and foremost about doing science. Military or political ideology are stronger motivators.

But now manned exploration that goes further than we have before seems to be viewed as a luxury. The only vision statement a President can make is about something to be achieved in twenty or thirty years time. JFK is probably crying somewhere.

If you want to create a heavy lift vehicle, it would be a really good idea to know what you want to do with it. The general idea of being able to put 130 tons (or so) into LEO so that we can go beyond that at some point is not a good mission outline. Neither will it capture anyone’s imagination. It has an indefinite timeline that can just be delayed.

30 years ago, as an 11-year old kid, I saw hope and excitement in the space program. I saw a future prepared to take on real risks for real achievement.

Today, the end of the shuttle and the looming cancellation of JWST bring with them great uncertainty and will certainly not excite our children. Mastery and challenges are what truly motivate people to be successful.

Having programs that inspire a new generation with the joy of discovery, from where our future is born, is not a luxury.

< End opinion piece 🙂 >

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One response

21 07 2011
Steve

A Truly sad day for mankind. Goodbye NASA shuttles you fueled my dreams.

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