This afternoon the world will witness the last launch of NASA’s iconic flagship the Shuttle. For three decades the Shuttle has been NASA’s manned space exploration tool. t has built the International Space Station, placed countless satellites in orbit, performed rapair work on the Hubble Telescope, and performed thousands of research experiments. It has also had some misadventures, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch 1986, and in 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry.
The Shuttle is aging, the technology is aging, so it is hardly surprising that the decision has been made to retire the program. But what will take its place? For the time being the answer is nothing. NASA will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz to ferry personnel to and from the Space Station. Does todays launch represent the end of US manned spaceflight?
What has happened to our pioneering spirit? In 1969 we put men on the moon, a feat that even today is amazing. The Moon program was surprisingly seat of the pants, space travel with duct tape and HP calculators. But people cared, and people made it happen. Have we lost that will and desire for exploration?
There is little doubt that retiring the Shuttle is a long overdue action, but why is there no shiny new replacement for it? Or why did we not just keep improving on the basic tried and tested design? This question has been eating at me for some time. In someways the ‘peoples’ version of the shuttle has to be the venerable Boeing 747. This plane has stood the test of time, and Boeing continue to evolve the aircraft. Only last week did they unveil the latest incarnation the 747-800. Bigger, better, more fuel efficient, and quieter.
For some reason the US government sponsored programs never seem willing to look to the future. This is a huge mistake. Program after program has been allowed to languish until it can just be axed. The F14 is a casebook example. This was a plane that truly was multifunction, a fighter, a bomber, a close ground support aircraft, and just about every other role you could think of. Money was not available to keep the F14 program alive, but there was lots available to spend on new, untried technology.
Todays launch represents a moment in history. It is the end of an era. Does it represent the end of manned space travel by America? Only time can answer that question.