By lex, on July 8th, 2011
It’s undoubtedly a bittersweet day at NASA, as Atlantis successfully blasted off, marking the last flight for the US space shuttle fleet. No replacement vehicle is currently funded, and the organization has gone looking for missions even as its high priced engineering talent will go looking for new work.
A sad day too for those of us who once dreamed of greater things in space exploration than an over-priced Dodge Caravan confined to Low Earth Orbit.
Like most government designs, the space shuttle system was a series of compromises: There were and are cheaper ways to move cargo into space, and better ways to move people. The concept of component re-usability as a way to reduce costs didn’t pan out in the way that boosters had hoped. And 40% fatal attrition was a high bill to pay across the five-vehicle fleet.
Sputnik 1 launched in 1957, and jolted America out of post-war lassitude. One year later the Mercury Project was borne, and in 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Gemini followed after in 1965, bridging the gap between the micro size Mercury vehicles and the Apollo spacecraft that took men to the moon in 1969. It was, in a technological sense, a dizzying pace of accomplishment.
Columbia first launched to LEO in 1981, and by that time our ambitions were constrained by the economics of space flight, a priority-based competition for resources and the tyranny of vast spacial distances. The shuttle program was designed make space flight routine, and if it never quite satisfied that objective from a fiscal standpoint, it certainly became sufficiently ordinary that – absent disasters – most Americans were blithely unaware when their fellow citizens and guests from other nations encircled them.
Atlantis is due to land on July 20th, and for another decade at least, American astronauts who want to pursue their profession will have to do so as guests of other nations.
Kids of my generation grew up watching Star Trek on television, and lifting our eyes to the night time stars, seeing the initial steps of that dream being realized before our eyes, or so we thought at least. That was before we learned that any subluminal particle of appreciable mass would require infinite energy to approach the speed of light. Special Relativity notwithstanding, the brightest students took the hardest courses and burned the nighttime oil pursuing engineering degrees that would lead to modestly paying government positions which enabled them to participate in making those first steps into the last frontier.
Mankind was born with a restless desire to explore, and yes, to conquer. But these days the dream of getting even so far as Mars in a manned space vehicle seems out of reach, and the greatest country in the world must hitch-hike to orbit. I do not know what today’s best and brightest dream about, but I’m pretty certain that it is not space travel. Having had our reach exceed our grasp, we lower our eyes, and turn our thoughts inward, toward the mundane and the trivial.
It is to weep.