And so, with a countdown and the words “liftoff for space shuttle Atlantis”, the craft clawed its way through the atmosphere and out into near-Earth orbit for the final NASA space shuttle launch. The primary mission of mankind’s greatest space agency has expired, and, with it, we enter into a time of uncertainty for human spaceflight.
Well, I say, good riddance. Good riddance to the space shuttle, and good riddance to the wasted years of expertise and money keeping that monstrosity alive.
You might be saying to yourself, “How can he say that? Who doesn’t love the space shuttle?”. I don’t. And not because I disagree with the notion of spending money on space programs. Quite the opposite. I hate the shuttle primarily because of my love for space exploration.
Let me explain. Near half a century go, President John F. Kennedy stood at a lectern and pronounced his desire to see the United States of America land the first human being on Earth’s moon, and to do so within a decade. It would be a stellar accomplishment not just for the country, but for our species. And we did it. With 1960s era technology, we did it. In hindsight, the motivations (to beat the Soviets at propaganda, and not to advance science), have been forgotten, and all we remember is that fantastic achievement in human space flight.
Fast forward. It’s the late 1970s, and Congress has approved funding for the new Space Shuttle. The shuttle is to be another step along the way in space exploration, another chapter in the book of NASA. Scientists describe the craft as a workaday vehicle, with the ability to transport astronauts and cargo into near-Earth orbit multiple times a week. With easy transport established, a space station could quickly follow. Suddenly, travel to outer space would be as normal and as routine as taking a bus across town. Science fiction was becoming science reality. The space shuttle would change everything.
Then, reality set in. The space shuttle was never, never, what was promised at it’s outset. The craft was finicky. Any simple rain cloud within twenty miles of Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle’s launch point, could scrub a mission. Conditions had to be so perfect that rather than launches being routine and weekly, only a handful were able to launch in any calendar year. Indeed, in the thirty years of the program, only 135 shuttle launches ever occurred.
It gets worse. The shuttle design was something of a mess, which, of course, Congress intervened to make even more complicated. How often did we wait patiently by the television for a shuttle launch, only to see it scrubbed. If it wasn’t for a few raindrops, it was for some tiny screw somewhere that wasn’t properly bolted down, or some widget that had broken apart. The shuttle, a jalopy thrown together by parts made at factories literally all across the United States, thanks to Congressional desires to spread out the manufacturing jobs, was terribly designed. But this experimental aircraft had become a jobs program. And not only was the process to build and maintain a shuttle incredibly drawn out, needlessly expensive, and inefficient, parts broke down all the time. Worse, the smallest failure of a component part could mean disaster. Indeed on two occasions, the NASA space shuttle killed its crew. In each instance, the failures were a result of small parts not working properly. That is a 1.5% kill rate, a tad high for a “workaday craft”. If NASA wasn’t so overly cautious, no doubt many more disasters would have occurred. Rather than being a bus to the sky, the shuttle was a highly orchestrated dance with death.
But my problem with the shuttle does not end with its intrinsic design flaws. Rather, my true problem with that contraption is what it did to NASA. NASA, once the envy of the world when it comes to human space flight was, over the decades, reduced to being a high-tech taxi service. The shuttle, rather than being another chapter in the book of NASA, become the book itself. The agency’s mission and the space shuttle’s existence became one in the same. Rather than using the shuttle experience to design new craft and plot new missions, NASA had its sights lowered to being nothing more than the keepers of the shuttle. Decades went by, and finally it has been put to pasture. But where is NASA? NASA couldn’t even travel to the moon right now if it wanted to, four decades after our initial visit. We have no replacement for the shuttle, no grand plans, no real vision or direction.
For the time being, the Russians will now transport our astronauts to the International Space Station, which is expected to continue to operate for another decade. It should be noted that the astronauts will be traveling in a Soyuz rocket, designed in the 1960s. It has little changed sense. But you know what? It costs a third of the shuttle program, and hasn’t killed anybody in quite a while either. And the Soyuz design is twenty years older than that of the shuttle! So, why did NASA keep them around again? Remind me.
Imagine with me, for a moment, what could have been accomplished if NASA had remained an ambitious group of space explorers, rather than a fancy version of public transportation, held back by incompetent leadership, congressional meddling, and vision-less presidents. It took us less than a decade to reach the moon. In the three decades since the space shuttles came into service, NASA instead could have landed a man on a near-Earth asteroid. Or, far better, on Mars. Or, perhaps we could be half way through construction of a science base on the moon. The possibilities are exciting.
But it doesn’t matter now. Even with the shuttle finally dead, NASA has lost the initiative with the rise of private space contractors and, in this time of fiscal austerity, no one is interested in giving NASA billions of dollars to embark upon some new bold mission. NASA’s time is passed. Space exploration will go on, but at a much slower pace for the time being. India and China want to each send a manned mission to the Moon, but this is only for propaganda. Perhaps in five years, astronauts can travel to the space station in privately designed craft. But once the station is decommissioned and allowed to descend into Earth’s orbit to break up and burn, what then? What’s next? Sadly, I feel, the dream of seeing a human land on Mars in my lifetime will burn up with the space station. We are entering a dark period for human space flight, and it is like to last for decades.
I blame you, space shuttle.
-Steve E. Brown