As of this writing, the Space Shuttle Atlantis sits on the pad at Kennedy Space Center Florida, ready for today’s liftoff on a mission to the International Space Station. Barring any last-minute reprieves, this will be Atlantis’ last flight. After this mission, Orbiter OV-104, first flown in 1985, will be removed from service as NASA retires the Shuttle fleet. There are only a few more flights remaining in the construction of the International Space Station, and once those flights are done, the shuttle program will be ended. The orbiters will be safed, and shipped off to various museums and institutions for display.
Once the last Space Shuttle lands sometime in 2011, the United States will have no manned access to space. While there is an impressive list of rockets in NASA’s fleet, once the Shuttles are retired, American astronauts will only be able to go into space on the rockets of other nations, primarily Russia.
Essentially, the only way for the United States to access it’s Space Station is to hail a cab.
With the cancellation of the Constellation program, the United States astronaut corps has no clear path to space, even to low Earth orbit, for at least a decade. This will undoubtedly decimate the astronaut program, since few people will be interested in being an astronaut that never gets to fly. The available slots in the ISS program will be snapped up quickly, or the political wrangling will become intense in the behind-the-scenes at NASA. Flight opportunities will be dependent on the Russian program, with a maximum US crew complement of two at a time. Take a number, Mr. or Ms. Astronaut. The Orion spacecraft has been resurrected, but only to serve as a lifeboat at the ISS, instead of being a Moon/Mars spacecraft. The Obama administration plans to rely on private companies for manned access to space, but there are currently no craft in development that could fly to low Earth orbit, let alone the ISS. Virgin Galactic might talk a good talk, but it’s not there yet.
I’ve been a space cadet since I was 12, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Eagle onto the Moon’s surface. I had a 3′ tall model of the Saturn 5 rocket, a LEM, and lunar rover. The excitement and wonder I felt then has remained with me to this day. As a teenager, I was expecting to see Moon bases, space stations, and trips to Mars in my adulthood. It’s been 40 years since that incredible July day in 1969, and we’ve not been back to the Moon since. It looks like we won’t be there again in my lifetime. The Chinese might go, or maybe a consotrium of other countries, but it won’t be on an American spacecraft. If we go, we’ll be there as partners, on somebody else’s rocket.
We got the space station, but it’s not really what I was expecting. Remember that station in 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’s what I thought a space station would look like. That big wheel in space, turning majestically to produce artificial gravity. And we could have done it. There’s nothing impossible about it, except our will to do it.
When I stop and think about the money this country has wasted on wars and other boon-doggels over the past 40 years, I can’t help but feel cheated. We’ve given up on space, no matter the gloss the politicians put on it, no matter the grand web sites put up by NASA, and we’re now paying customers on somebody else’s 1970 technology. (which works very well, btw. No slam intended on Russia’s program. At least they’ve got one)
I may, as a very old man (knock on wood) get to see American astronauts once again on the Moon, but I’m not holding my breath. I hold no hope of seeing them on Mars. President Kennedy said the United States was willing to do these things not because they were easy, but because they were hard. Going to the Moon again would be hard. Going to Mars would be incredibly difficult. We could do it, but it looks like the United States has turned inward, and is now reluctant to do the hard things, because they are hard. And expensive. We are willing to spend 12 billion dollars a month on two wars of dubious intent, but we begrudge the future 18 billion a year.
I want my space station. I want my Moon base. I want my Mars mission. I want my flying car. We got the computers and the microwave ovens and the cellular phones, but I was promised the big things. We could have done them… well, maybe not the flying car, but I wonder about that too, but we haven’t even tried. I’m disappointed in US.