NASA's shuttle program: An end of an era, or a promising new beginning?
Space shuttle Atlantis' final liftoff Friday morning marked what many are calling the bittersweet end of an era: NASA's final shuttle launch and the end of manned American space travel for the foreseeable future. But despite the tinge of sadness former astronauts, spectators and space enthusiasts feel, many concede the program wasn't perfect. It was expensive with too few benefits to justify the price tag.
Now under President Obama's plan, the U.S. will rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until the private sector develops spaceships to take astronauts to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, NASA will be working on developing deep space rockets to take astronauts even farther -– but even test flights are years away.
According to the Associated Press, many are critical of the end of the program because NASA has no space travel plan to transition to. And members of the older generation of astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, reject the end of the program because NASA doesn't have a backup plan for getting astronauts home from the International Space Station or for repairing it.
Leroy Chiao, an astronaut for 15 years, told NPR that the end of the program was sad for nostalgic reasons, but it's also the end of something much bigger: U.S. knowledge. "I'm mourning not just the emotional loss of the shuttle but also the loss of the technology and the loss of national prestige," he said. "Frankly, after this mission, we will no longer have the ability to send American astronauts into space ourselves, and arguably, we will no longer be the leaders in human spaceflight until we get that capability back."
Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, compared the end of the space shuttle program to the end of America's sense of discovery, and the feeling that anything is possible: "The program's end carries the force of cruel metaphor, coming at a time when limits are all we talk about. When we have no stars in our eyes." The U.S. is "Earthbound" in the upcoming election, he wrote, and many Americans are doubtful that the country's economic growth and prosperity will ever pick up. Just like old space shuttles, our sense of discovery is museum-bound along with the rest of our "glories of yesteryear."
Gregory Rodriguez, Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said a key reason for continuing to send humans into space is to defeat the same utilitarianism and the cost-benefit analysis that have threatened NASA over the last few years.
The problem is that acceptable reasons alone -- national security, economic benefit, scientific discovery -- don't fully explain why we should launch ourselves into space. Rather, the true justification for space exploration is that such enterprises "speak abundantly to our sense of human curiosity, of wonder and awe," and because they "lift up human hearts everywhere when we do them."
But to others, the end of the program simply means that the U.S. has lost its ambition for exploration. An article in the Economist says the Space Age is likely over and that humanity will be confined to low-orbit space. The private market is small and doesn't look promising; "space tourism" is expensive; and the ISS, which has cost more than $100 billion, is set to be de-orbited in 2020.
With luck, robotic exploration of the solar system will continue. But even there, the risk is of diminishing returns. Every planet has now been visited, and every planet with a solid surface bar Mercury has been landed on. Asteroids, moons and comets have all been added to the stamp album. Unless life turns up on Mars, or somewhere even more unexpected, public interest in the whole thing is likely to wane. And it is the public that pays for it all.
Politics and economics aside, most people probably felt at least a twinge of sadness and nostalgia Friday morning as the final launch took off to the place sci-fi enthusiasts dream of.
Here's what viewers were saying about the launch:
Photo: Atlantis lifts off Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Darin Dowe / EPA
Spectators watch the final launch of space shuttle Atlantis in Titusville, Fla. Credit: Gerry Broome/Associated Press