The Space Shuttle Atlantis closed its hatch at the International Space Station on Tuesday, for the last time, not just for that orbiter, but for any. It separated from the ISS, and will perform a few final tasks in orbit over the next couple days. Then, weather permitting, it will fire its orbital maneuvering engines to slow itself, and start its long, last fall back into the atmosphere, with a final stop of the wheels on the runway in Florida, where it will spend the rest of its days in a museum at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. After a little more than three decades of operation, the Space Shuttle program will be over.
Ironically, it takes place on the forty-second anniversary of the first landing on the moon (July 20th), an event that many at the time thought would kick off a great age of space exploration, to be followed by lunar bases and human missions to other planets. In fact, the Shuttle program, initiated shortly after that monumental achievement, was thought to hold the key to the rest of the solar system. Instead, it served to keep us trapped in low earth orbit for almost four decades.
With the Shuttle’s retirement this week, the nation is now dependent on the Russian Soyuz to not only get its astronauts to and from the ISS, but to continue to provide the “lifeboat” in the event of an emergency in orbit. There is now no backup to that system — if something goes wrong with it, we will have no access at all, which could be disastrous for not just those aboard the station, but for the facility itself.
This situation has led some (including some who should know better) to panic and go off on flights of fancy about keeping the system going. Even former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who created a controversy a few years ago by declaring the program a “mistake,” is now saying that it should go on.
But it’s simply impossible at this point to close the “gap” with the Space Shuttle. As former Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale warned at his blog three years ago, the supply chain of expendable parts (such as external tanks) is gone, and couldn’t be recreated for two or three years. And beyond that, it would simply be impractical to fly safely with only three orbiters left.
The end of the Shuttle program ends more than the Shuttle era. Historians in the future will note that it ended a false notion, one half a century old: that humanity would open up space through the application of command-economy government programs. The future, even the immediate future, of human spaceflight lies not with a single type of vehicle developed by and for a massive government bureaucracy, but with public/private partnerships that create a robust, competitive commercial spaceflight industry. This is the only practical way forward to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle and new domestic capability that will eliminate our reliance on the Russians.
Unfortunately, Congress, caring more about space pork than progress, continues to have other plans.