The Space Shuttle Program's Ignominious Conclusion

The Space Shuttle Atlantis, on its final mission, and the final mission for the program as a whole, touched down successfully today just a few moments ago. Presumably NASA won't be taking Charlie Martin's costuming advice for the crew that will meet them at the Kennedy Space Center tarmac.

USA Today reports NASA control saying, "Atlantis is home. Its journey complete. A moment to be savored."

I'm not sure if James Lileks feels the same way:

NASA is keen to tell you there’s a still a future for sending Americans into space, but there’s a general cultural anomie that seems content to watch movies about people in space, but indifferent to any plans to put them there. This makes me grind my teeth down to the roots, but I suppose that’s a standard reaction when the rest of your fellow citizenry doesn’t share the precise and exact parameters of your interests and concerns. That’s the problem when you grow up with magazines telling you where we’re going after the moon, with grade-school notebooks that had pictures of the space stations to come, when the push to Mars was regarded as an inevitable next step.

Just got hung up on the “why?” part, it seems. Also the “how” and the “how much” and other details. I can see the reason for taking our time – develop new engines, perfect technology, gather the money and the will. It’s not like anything’s going anywhere. But it’s not like we’re going anywhere if we’re not going anywhere, either – when nations, cultures stop exploring, it’s a bad sign. You’re ceding the future. If you have a long view that regards nation-states as quaint relics of a time in human history when maps had lines – really, you can’t see them from space! We’re all one, you know – then it doesn’t matter whether China or the US puts a flag on Mars. It’s possible a Chinese Mars expedition would commemorate the first boot on red soil with a statement that spoke for everyone on the planet, not a particular culture or nation. It’s possible. But history would remember that they chose to go, and we chose not to.

In a sense though, we’ve been marking time for the last 25 years or so, maybe even longer. Arthur C. Clarke, then basking in the fame of having co-written the screenplay to 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote of covering the Apollo 11 launch as part of CBS’s team of experts, and hearing then-Vice President Spiro Agnew tell him, “Now we must go to Mars.”  Needless to say, that mission was not to be – or, it’s not to be for many decades from now. But the Space Shuttle was but one arm in Wernher von Braun’s vision, which is what Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 displayed, though with sleeker technology and a further planetary destination in mind. The Shuttle would take astronauts to a large space station, which would double as a way-station to the moon, and an orbital rendezvous location to assemble the manned vehicle to take us to Mars.

Instead, due to budget cutbacks and Congressional apathy, by the late 1970s, the Shuttle was all that remained of von Braun’s triad. And its service life must have simultaneously amazed and baffled many of the men who kept her flying.  After World War II, progress in American aviation moved at a clip that seemed nearly as fast as the jet engine itself. First the Air Force became a newly independent branch of the military. Then the B-29 was replaced by the B-36, which was replaced by the all-jet B-47, which was replaced  by the even larger B-52 -- which is still flying today. Similarly, the space program in the 1960s progressed quickly from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. But just as American Air Force pilots are today flying 50 year-old B-52s, I doubt anybody associated with crafting the Space Shuttle in the mid-1970s thought that the vehicle would still be flying almost 30 years after its first launch. But space technology has been in a holding pattern. We couldn't get men beyond low-earth orbit, and other than the Hubble, we didn't seem to do all that much -- at least when compared with NASA's first decade. Today, though, that's all in the past, at least for now.