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Whither thou goest, Space Shuttle?

Wed, 04/21/2010 - 12:29pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Oh Space Shuttle, thou noblest of space-faring, low-Earth-orbiting vehicles, we hardly knew ye. Compared to the Apollo program, you were but a minor diversion—a minor, 30 year diversion. Proponents claimed you’d make space travel “routine and economical,” though you proved to be neither. And yet, your long-overdue retirement leaves a major void.

On Tuesday, April 20th, the Space Shuttle Discovery touched down safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Primarily a cargo-ferrying mission, STS-131 marked the last round-trip for the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, a “moving van for the space station.” After the last Shuttle mission later this year, Leonardo will remain permanently attached to the International Space Station. The “moving van” allowed the shuttle to “deliver shipments of equipment and supplies larger than any other vehicle could accommodate, and, second, to return science experiments, unneeded hardware and trash to the ground.” If this all seems very droll, I think it’s emblematic of the Space Shuttle program as a whole.

STS-58 Launch. The Space Shuttle will ''ride off'' into the sunset at the end of this year.From the beginning, the Space Shuttle program had none of the pizzazz of Apollo. In 1962, JFK famously declared, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Seven years later, we did it—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on the moon.

Compare that to Nixon’s muted enthusiasm for the space program—“Having completed that long stride into the future which has been our objective for the past decade, we now must define new goals which make sense for the Seventies. We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements. But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources.” This was a stark departure from JFK's clarion call eight years earlier.

Nixon made his priorities abundantly clear—“We should work to reduce substantially the cost of space operations.” Thus, he chose the Space Shuttle, the cheapest of three options, for extending the space program beyond Apollo. Ultimately, substantial cost overruns skewered the notion of “economical” space travel, but that’s beside the point. The Space Shuttle never captured the public’s imagination the way Apollo did.

Partly, this is due to leadership. Though Nixon was fascinated by the Space Program, he never conveyed his enthusiasm to the public. He never laid out clear policy goals, or anything comparable to landing on the moon. The Space Shuttle was designed for Low-Earth Orbit, and was never intended to be a permanent solution. Proponents claimed it’d be “routine and economical”—Nixon said it would, “revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it (sic). It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.”

Yet 30 years later, it’s still our only ticket to space (apart from hitching rides on Russian Soyuzs). The Space Shuttle was anything but “economical” and it certainly never “routinized” space travel. NASA originally predicted a weekly launch rate, which was pure fantasy. 50 launches became 24, then nine, and in 2007, it hit an all-time low of three.

For the last 12 years, we’ve labored to construct the International Space Station. The ISS is primarily a research facility in which crews can conduct an array of scientific experiments in a microgravity environment. Surely, this is a worthwhile endeavor, but it’s not as sexy as landing on the moon, or going to Mars.

The Shuttle is slated for retirement later this year, after which there’ll be an indeterminate gap in American space travel. The Shuttle’s would-be successor, Constellation, was recently cancelled by President Obama. In its stead, Obama leaned on the private sector, encouraging companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Boeing to develop orbital spacecraft. Until then, we’ll need to hitch rides on Russian Soyuzs (at $55.8 million a seat).

From a simple cost-benefit analysis, retiring the shuttle is a smart decision. But with no clear successor, we may be ceding our “leadership in space.” President Obama has predicted a manned asteroid mission by 2025, and a trip to Mars by the mid 2030’s. Towards that end, his plan invests in heavy-lift rockets and advanced propulsion systems. He claims that “we will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs.” But we’ve heard this before. “Routinizing” space travel does not a clear policy goal make.

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