As the last Space Shuttle finds a home in a museum, ANDY FLEMING investigates the future of NASA and the American space program.
The space shuttle Atlantis has landed back on Earth for the final time on July 21, 2011, ending the shuttle programme's last-ever mission. The spacecraft touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, bringing an end to America's 30-year shuttle programme. The crew of commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim spent almost 13 days in space.
Space Shuttle Atlantis' final launch from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. July 8, 2011.
After more than 30 years, the space shuttle era has come to a close. Space shuttle Atlantis and the STS-135 crew landed safely on runway 15 at 5:57 a.m. EDT at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, ending a 13-day journey of more than five million miles. It was the final and 133rd landing in shuttle history. The STS-135 crew consisted of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.
Now as readers of Andromeda Child will be aware, I've never been a great fan of either the space shuttle program, or come to that the International Space Station (ISS). The former has never lived up to its aim of being a cheap Space Transportation System (STS) costing one billion dollars every time it has launched and the latter has consumed tens of billions of dollars allowing astronauts to grow plants in low Earth orbit. Both have lacked the vision and excitement of deep space exploration that would inspire a generation of young people into science education and productive careers in technology, so typified by NASA's Apollo program.
Indeed, the Space Shuttle was never commercially viable either, despite this being one of the justifications used by NASA for keeping it going. It would have been considerably cheaper, efficient and more reliable to have launched the Hubble Space Telescope by a Titan booster than in the payload bay of a shuttle. And of course the Shuttle wasn't particularly safe either as the catastrophic failure of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 showed. A one in seventy chance of a catastrophic failure during a mission are not good odds in the twenty first century.
However, shuttle astronauts did fix the world's favourite telescope when it was launched with a severe case of myopia and the shuttle has allowed servicing of this invaluable piece of scientific equipment. And despite my lack of enthusiasm for the scientific value of the ISS the shuttle and its crews have played a huge role in constructing our habitat in low Earth orbit.
But I would rather have Richard Nixon's under-whelming space shuttle program, (initiated of course to give NASA a raison d'etre after the early termination of project Apollo) than no US manned space exploration at all. Because along with the sacking of 4,000 well trained and qualified engineers in Florida, President Obama's vision for the human future in space consists of Americans being taken to the ISS via boosters with the Russian flag on them. As their Soyuz spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan dock with the ISS they may ponder as to what John F Kennedy would have thought of today's US space program, as he fired the starting pistol for Project Apollo fifty years ago. He must be turning in his grave.
So what now for President Obama's lack of vision in space? And what now for NASA? Obama believes that private enterprise will now take over where the US taxpayer no longer wishes to tread. The future of western manned spaceflight to him lies in the hands of companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX with its veritable Falcon 9 booster. Such companies will bid for space transport contracts from NASA which itself will become more of a purchasing and facilitating authority.
But realistically, if mankind is ever to leave low Earth orbit and reach for an the Moon, an asteroid, the Lagrangian Points or Mars taxpayers dollars will be needed on a gargantuan scale. But the political enthusiasm for space exploration on any scale is palpable by its total absence. Consider this: the US Congress is now well along the road to axing the James Webb Telescope, the successor to Hubble. Billions of dollars already spent and massive future science benefits will be lost.
However, should we be surprised at the almost criminal lack of funding for NASA when one considers that a surprisingly large number of American politicians are scientifically ignorant? Many believe that the Earth and the Cosmos were created in 6006BC and that homo sapiens and dinosaurs co-existed in some type of quasi Flintstones-style theme park? Dont believe me? Well, Sarah Palin, a failed Republican candidate for the Presidency next month does according to the Huffington Post.
It is truly wonderful that relations between the once superpower adversaries have improved to such a degree that astronauts can travel with cosmonauts to the ISS on a Russian booster. And it's also wonderful that private enterprise is picking up the gauntlet in a frontier-style spirit just like how the west was won.
But the challenges of space exploration far exceed those of any exploration on our home planet orin nineteenth century North America, and certainly exceed the funds available to any single corporation. Indeed such demands possibly outstrip the ability of a single nation to fund a manned space program with the goal of say landing a human on Mars. And what private company is going to fund unmanned space exploration such as the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity or the Juno mission to the Jupiter system? There's hardly going to be much of a tangible benefit to shareholders.
The effects of the US cutting its manned space program (and now possibly its unmanned space program too) will be far more than saving a small fraction of the amount spent by the US military in fighting wars in the Middle East. The loss to American science, technology and engineering will be huge and will cost this great nation dearly in the future. As Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute states (originally another NASA project searching for life elsewhere in the Cosmos axed by the US Congress), America is starting to look more and more like the Roman Empire in its latter stages. This greatest of empires collapsed not because of the things it continued to do but because of the even greater things it no longer undertook. Read his report here.
If I will ever see a human on Mars in my lifetime it is becoming ever more apparent he or she won't be American... they'll be Chinese.
Further Reading and Links:
Shostak, S.: American Space Research: An Also-Ran?, Huffpost Tech, 17.7.11.