The last of the Space Shuttle missions will soon be launched, and with it at least a pause in American-run manned space flight. One hopes this won't be the last time the US launches men into space.
It's hard to believe that just over 30 years ago, Crippen and Young flew Columbia on the program's maiden flight. I remember back in the 1970s seeing pictures of the old Enterprise do landing and glide tests. And of course, the losses of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Exploration has always been a risky business.
To be honest, I'm not sure if the shuttle program was a huge success, or if it met any of the 'goals' the original designers might have had. The shuttles were instrumental in launching, supplying, and repairing several satellites and space stations. And for the stresses the vessels went through in a typical mission, they were remarkably durable. 30+ years for an aviation program is remarkable enough.
I think the shuttles were largely a victim of being part of the political football that NASA has been during most of its existence. Given a mission to perform, NASA performed generally well. President Kennedy wanted to place and retrieve Americans on the moon by the end of the 1960s-and it got done. Numerous agencies and nations wanted satellites launched-and it got done.
Now what? During the 1970s and 1980s, NASA didn't seem to have a clear vision for the future. Sure, the shuttles were in the pipeline. But what to do with them? Use them to build an orbital station? What about a manned mission to Mars? A return to the moon?
The collapse of the Soviet Union may have been both a blessing and a curse for the US space program. The 'curse' was that any plans to build orbital stations and planetary bases to counter the USSR went by the wayside. The 'blessing' was that the Mir station could be supplied and serviced by the shuttle. Mir and the new International Space Station provided work for the shuttles through the 1990s and 2000s.
After this final mission, the 135th of the program, the Space Shuttles will fade into history. The surviving vessels will be parceled out to various museums.
Again, now what?
Unfortunately, we haven't found a compelling reason to go to the moon or the other planets. The moon doesn't appear to be loaded with a lot of exotic minerals which would make mining a viable proposition. There may be enough water ice at the poles to sustain a small base-someday.
Building a big enough orbital station to have a permanent industrial presence (building interplanetary craft, for example) seems to be a non-starter. Venus, unfortunately, doesn't have the life many sci-fi authors thought it might. Same with Mars, though it is livable after a fashion, and more amenable to life as we know it. I haven't given up on life on the other planets, since we find organisms in the most inhospitable places here on Earth. If a bacteria can thrive on the inside of an operational nuclear reactor, certainly something could be living on Mars. Obviously, if Mars were more Earth-like, every nation would have been building ships as fast as they could to set up colonies there.
Observation and communication relays can be handled adequately by satellites, so it isn't like we need a manned station to perform those functions.
So what do we replace the shuttles with? Or will we?
The Russian space program seems to be doing okay with its venerable Soyuz/Salyut systems. They've been around a long time, but the Russians are believers in the engineer's dictum-if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Chinese used a Soyuz clone for their manned space flight. Perhaps our next step will be a step back, like the proposed Orion and Constellation craft, which are at heart enlarged Apollo capsules. Perhaps the Air Force already has a replacement craft. There are a lot of strange craft seen out in the hinterlands of Nevada. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if we had something else available to send a brace of astronauts into orbit if necessary. Oh, nothing like a flying saucer with inertialess drive-but maybe a spaceplane like the old Dyna-Soar.
Or some private concern might pick up the slack and develop a manned craft. There may be a market for a very upscale hotel in orbit for the super-rich to spend a few days. Again, with no readily identifiable resources or industry within a practical distance of Earth, it might be a tough sell to get the private sector to invest in space travel. The space program has generated a lot of projects and products that we use every day. I believe continued investment in space, along with a well-defined program with realistic goals, is important for the nation.
In addition to the material benefits, the space program and any endeavors it can accomplish provide a source of pride in a non-violent sphere. Our seeming 'abandonment' of space seems like yet another example of an America in decline. Maybe it is. Certainly, in the halcyon days of the push for the Moon in the 1950s and 1960s, many people and organizations had big dreams and thoughts about man's future in space.
All I know is that by the 1990's, we were supposed to have interplanetary ships like the famous Botany Bay:
And by 2001, we'd have a real, honest-to-God space station with regular Pan Am service:
And I want them!! What the hell happened?
Of course, by some accounts, by 1992 the Apes were to take over the planet and that didn't happen. Whew!