Friday, July 8, marked the final launch for the Space Shuttle — a somewhat reusable space vehicle that was, and is, a marvel of technology. Yet in the wake of Atlantis’ liftoff all that remains is uncertainty about the once great American space program.
I’m no fan of the Space Shuttle program. It was shockingly expensive — reportedly $196 billion over 40 years — wasteful and largely without purpose. But the program’s failings are due as much to NASA policy as they are to Cold War politics. When the Space Shuttle was being designed it was intended to be a reliable way to transport astronauts and cargo into Earth orbit every few weeks. In fact, when the program was green-lighted in 1972, it was believed that 50 launches per year were feasible.
The Shuttle was originally intended to be one part of a larger space transportation system (STS) that also included a space station. In fact, Space Shuttle missions all bore the acronym STS, with today’s launch designated STS-135. When initially conceived, the Space Shuttle was indeed a truly reusable spacecraft. It would carry its own liquid propellant; it would have a jet engine for reentry, and it would be smaller than the Shuttle we know today.
Sadly, costs, politics and military demands changed the sleek, efficient vehicle that was planned into a clumsy, costly imitation. The Air Force, some say, is responsible for crippling the Shuttle before it ever flew. It wanted the vehicle to be able to both launch spy satellites and capture Soviet ones. The Air Force also wanted the Shuttle to be able to fly polar orbits, where it could better spy on the Russians. These demands meant several things: The Shuttle would now require a massive external fuel tank and a much larger cargo bay. It also meant a second launch facility would be needed to reach a polar orbit. And one was built at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for $ 4 billion. The second site, however, was never used. These changes made the Shuttle far more expensive to launch, completely negating the possibility of weekly missions.
But the Shuttle did help bankrupt the Soviet Union. Desperate to keep up, Russia spent billions developing a Shuttle clone — called the Buran — though it never flew. Following the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the purpose of the Shuttle became further muddled. Ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station would eventually serve as the Shuttle’s primary function. And when the Columbia was destroyed in 2003, the ISS became a mandatory stopover for the Shuttle so it could be inspected for damage. The Shuttle and the ISS had formed a symbiotic relationship, where each’s existence and funding depended on the other.
Still, the Shuttle had successes which shouldn’t be discounted. Launching the Hubble Space Telescope, for instance, likely wouldn’t have been possible had the original Shuttle design been built. And whatever your opinions on the value of the ISS, most of its components were delivered by the Space Shuttle. And perhaps the Shuttle’s most important accomplishment was — for a time — inspiring young Americans to dream of becoming astronauts, engineers and scientists. And that is what is so bitterly disappointing about President Obama’s space policy.
Last year, the president essentially killed off the Constellation Program, NASA’s next generation of manned space flight. Constellation was by no means perfect. Some would argue it was fatally flawed for borrowing so heavily from Apollo-era technology. Yet for a president who came to office in part by championing technology education, eliminating Constellation without offering an alternative does irreparable harm to U.S. space exploration. More importantly, Obama’s policy, which essentially defers space operations to private industry, has diminished one of America’s greatest exports — the belief that in America anything is possible.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the U.S. last set foot on another world. The Space Shuttle program, at best, caused space exploration to stagnate. It was expensive, mundane and occasionally disastrous. But to abandon the program with no vision for the future is far worse. If one day my son tells me he wants to be an astronaut, I suppose I’ll have to tell him to move to Russia.