Space Shuttle Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the pre-dawn hours of July 21, 2011. 42 years and one day after Apollo 11’s Eagle landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, the last shuttle to fly touches down on KSC’s runway 15.
It’s appropriate that this image shows the shuttle touching down in the dark, because the United States now has no manned access to space.
Our only option to orbit now is buying seats on the Russian Soyuz. The future, which once was bright with a Moon base and a journey to Mars, is now dimmed. A Mars rover, a huge vehicle in it’s own right, is nearing it’s launch date, and it will be a grand adventure, but with the exceptions of a few projects in the pipeline, NASA has no mission to the stars or planets, no grand goal to inspire the next generations of Americans.
When President Kennedy set us on the path to the Moon, we went from modified ICBMs, to the mighty Saturn V, in less than ten years. When the Apollo program was cancelled early, we didn’t despair, because we knew the Shuttle was in the system, and under development. Although it didn’t live up to the promises made early on, becoming much more costly and complicated and time consuming than most of us expected, the Shuttle did provide a platform that was so successful that we built a space station with it, launched satellites, did unimaginable science, and were inspired beyond our imaginings. They were the most complicated machines ever built, and we flew them into low Earth orbit, dozens of times each! Since nothing so grand is ever without human costs, we also lost two, and 14 brave explorers. Each of those people were, literally, rocket scientists, and knew more than any of us could the dangers of what they were doing. They did it anyway. How could you blame them? The chance to experience what they did? They thought it was worth the risk. Those that followed them in subsequent missions thought so, too. They’d only have had to ask me once if I was willing to go. Space Cadet would be at attention, saluting, saying “when do we leave!?” before they could get the whole question asked. Yes, it’s worth the risk.
But now the Shuttles are grounded. None of them will fly again. They’ll become museum attractions, and sit in silence, while the children wonder at them, and us oldsters will talk about seeing them fly, “back in the day”. When will we see the next manned machine fly into space with Old Glory proudly emblazoned on it’s side? It’s going to be a long time. Private industry is working on ships that will reach low Earth orbit, and be able to dock with the International Space Station. The brave talk is that those ships will be flying in a few short years, but, as we all know, this is rocket science. It’s possible we’ll see private companies hauling cargo and astronauts to the ISS this decade, but I’m not holding my breath. Even though this is only year 1 of the “tensies”, I wonder how soon we’ll really see a company logo docking with ISS, and unloading supplies and crewmembers to the station. I think it will be a while, and it’s even possible that we’ll see a Chinese vehicle there before we see the U.S.S. Capitalism clamping onto one of those docking adapters.
We’ve given up on the Moon. We’ve given up on Mars. NASA used to be the right stuff. Now the right stuff has gone missing, and I’m not sure we’ll find it, at least not in my lifetime. I grew up a child of the space age. I’m one month older. I was born in September 1957, and Sputnik was launched in October 1957. Space travel has been with me my entire life. My childhood was filled with a future full of space stations, moon bases, Mars colonies, flying cars, warp drive, transporters, and yes, even phasers. Now, we have the space station, but we have no way to get there from here. We’re reduced to standing at the curb, hand up, yelling “TAXI!” There is no Moon base. There is no Mars base. There are no flying cars, warp drive, transporters, or phasers. When there are, they’re likely to be labeled in Russian, or Chinese.
Wither, NASA? I hope not. The agency people put up a good talk, and I hope there’s plenty going on in the background that we don’t really see much about, but once momentum is lost, it’s gone. It’s difficult to rebuild the skills, experience, knowledge, and understanding from scratch again, after you’ve let it go. Think of a body builder, who in his youth is buff, and strong, and winning tournaments every time he goes out. Then after a while, he starts taking a break. The muscles loosen, the waist expands, the habits that won those admiring glances fade away. How often do you see them stage comebacks, and be bigger and stronger than before? NASA might do that, but I think the odds are against it. And if the Tea Party dimwits have their way, it’ll never happen.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit melancholy about the whole thing right now. Maybe things will look a bit brighter tomorrow. Maybe.