IF MOTHER Nature cooperates, this morning one woman and three men will walk the steps up the launch tower at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, board the space shuttle Atlantis, and take off on the last flight of the space shuttle program. After 30 years, 135 launches, two disasters, and vast quantities of money, the shuttle program is finally being scrapped. The United States will no longer have the capability to send astronauts into space.
For all the heartfelt sentiment accompanying the end of the program, the sad reality is the space shuttle’s demise was long overdue. Its goal of providing inexpensive, fast, and reliable access to space for government and commercial cargoes never materialized. Shuttle maintenance and refurbishment were too expensive, the delays between flights too long, and the simplicity of a single reusable spacecraft was belied by the need for a new external fuel tank for each flight. The total cost of the program, estimated at about $200 billion, worked out to well over $1 billion per mission. The value of scientific research from experiments on the flight was debatable. And then, of course, there were the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia.
Finding the right new mission for NASA will not be easy. In 2010, President Obama outlined a new space program. Much of it delegates our space needs to other countries - refurbishing the International Space Station will now rely on Russian, European, and Japanese rockets for resupplying - or the private sector. But even Obama could not let go of awe of space travel, vaguely proposing this week a manned trip to a near-Earth asteroid and, sometime in the 2030s, a manned mission to Mars.
The space race, which made human beings the primary feature of America’s space program, was an outgrowth of Cold War competition. Its time is over. But the Space Age is not. Unmanned missions should continue to explore the outer ranges of our universe, fueling the imagination of the world with journeys like that of Voyager I, which is traveling beyond our solar system. Managing earth’s orbit, so much closer to home, to assist in important public needs such as weather monitoring, telecommunication, military surveillance, and farming is a vital and potentially lucrative business.
For a nation that sent a young Neil Armstrong where no man had gone before, abandoning space travel is filled with emotion. And Obama is right to emphasize that this is not a permanent end point. There will be manned missions in the future. Choosing the right game plan - one that satisfies both the urge for exploration and the advancement of scientific knowledge - is important.
In its overly long history, the space shuttle program never completely delivered on its promise. Atlantis will return soon, for an understandably bittersweet NASA homecoming. But it is a good time for the shuttle crew to step foot on Earth and stay here, while awaiting a more fully developed mission in the future.