Last Flight of Atlantis: The end of an era and beyond

As I write this, mankind has seen the space shuttle fly for the last time. Having spent my entire life knowing that the shuttle was out there, I can understand the fear, shock and sadness this realization sparks in the hearts of many. I feel it too. It feels like we’re loosing something magical, something that makes us, as Americans, unique and special. And my God, that thing IS beautiful; unlike the cobbled-together ISS or the old “simpler” capsule-based rockets, the Shuttle looks like it’s flown right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sleek, aerodynamic, and for 30 years it’s been living proof we’re “living in the future”. And now it’s all over, and we are diminished. Certainly NASA has lost its way and we are doomed.

Wait, has it? Are we? Maybe not. In our feelings of loss and nostalgia for the shuttle, we feel a little afraid. Conservatives quickly use it as proof that Obama is dismantling our nation and dooming us all. Liberals gently attempt to remind them that it was Bush’s government that scheduled the end of the Shuttle. Honestly? It doesn’t matter. It was time for the Shuttle to end. Shuttle was a very useful tool to get us to low Earth orbit; it was big and impressive, and glorious as a symbol of advancement and prosperity. But it was also inefficient, horribly expensive to operate, and worst of all, it could push us no further than our own orbital backyard. Perhaps different policies and investments could have made Shuttle cheaper to fly and more reliable. Maybe. Most of us here commenting simply don’t have the knowledge to comment on these things, not being, after all, rocket scientists. But it’s clear that in its current form the program had run its course. This leaves us with two problems.

GET ME BACK OUT THERE!

The first is that we still need a cheap, efficient vehicle or vehicles to operate in LEO. Now, we’ve been going up there since the Mercury years; we send satellites up there all the time. This is a well understood problem, the time has come to privatize it. And that’s exactly what is being done. Not WILL BE done. IS being done. Not in ten years, but in five or less; the Dragon capsule has, after all, already flown in space, having launched aboard a Falcon 9. Other, equally promising vehicles are getting ready to go, like SpaceDev’s HL-20 based space plane. That little sucker is even sleeker looking than Shuttle; heck, it’s Farscape 1. These vehicles are meeting all their milestones and doing so at a fraction of the cost of similar NASA-run programs. They are working with NASA oversight, however; these are not loose cannons, these are serious entrepreneurs that will put us back in LEO in a few years. If I had to guess, I’d say the next astronaut flying an American-built vehicle will be in space in less time than the six year Apollo-Shuttle gap (1975 to 1981). Yes, there was a gap that long, and that was no horrible tragedy then any more than it is now.

WHAT NOW?

The second problem the end of the Shuttle leaves us with is having to answer the question of “what now?” What will NASA do now? Is it still relevant? Well, first of all let’s clarify something right now. NASA has not been idle. NASA is not “the American Space Airline”. NASA has, over the last decade or so, performed some truly astounding robotic missions. Amazing, awe-inspiring stuff. They have slammed a spacecraft into a comet. They have taken ground-based photos of Titan. They have an amazing little probe, the Cassini, orbiting Saturn right now, which produces the most amazing image of the Earth since the famous Earth-rise photo of the Apollo era… Earth from Saturn’s shadow.  And then there are the Mars missions, in particular the fantastic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit finally stopped operating late last year, but Opportunity is trudging on, now in the 7th year of its 3 month mission.

And that’s the thing. NASA is not and should not be the National Space Truck Agency. It needs to move on and look outwards. To the Asteroids, to Mars, and beyond. The problem right now seems to be a lack of clarity on how that will be done. We are at an awkward stage where decisions have to made and do not come easily. Neither does budget, of course, a perennial concern. And while I’d love to see NASA funded at a much higher level than it is now, that is simply not going to happen in the short term. First it needs to recapture the public’s imagination, then the money might come. And the only way to recapture that interest is to do something new, something bold. The problem is that, to many, the next bold step forward looks like a step back. Specifically, it seems NASA has concluded that it needs to return to a capsule-based system. To some, this seems like we’re turning back the clock to the Apollo era. But maybe, just maybe, that is not a bad thing. Many people don’t know that Apollo was once scheduled to make a manned flyby of Venus. Yes, even back then that now primitive craft was deemed to be capable of interstellar flight. Apollo was a craft that moved us outward; the farthest a human being has ever been from Earth was on an Apollo craft. Maybe we should be looking back.

ISSUES AND MISCONCEPTIONS

The return to human space exploration raises a lot of questions and fears, and frankly I don’t think NASA is doing a great job of explaining themselves. First of all, they need to make up their minds (as does congress!) as to some specific and immediate next steps to ease public fears about the agency just sitting there treading water (and by water we mean taxpayer dollars). But some issues, I think, turn out to be not as big a deal as some fear.

The Moon

Are we going back to the Moon or should we skip it? Bush wanted to go to the Moon. Obama cancelled that and wants to go to an Asteroid. This is largely irrelevant. A craft that is designed for an Asteroid mission or some kind of Mars operation will be able to easily get to the Moon. There is no need right now to decide where we are going. We need to build the craft with the proper capabilities, and build it now. The MPCV is just fine as a next step in this path. Lets stop talking about it and get it launched, shall we?

The MPCV and Heavy Launch Vehicle are too small to get to Mars

This is obvious. The next capsule we build is hardly meant to be the entire Mars mission. Its just a way to get crew out of Earth orbit (and possibly to and from the Martian surface?). It’s a lifeboat for the ISS and the Mars mission. Its a modular crew compartment for ANY ship we launch. It will NOT by itself go to Mars. It’s a part of the overall Mars system. The final Mars ship will likely be built in orbit, much like the ISS was, using the MPCV and the proposed Heavy Launch Vehicle. What shape will that ship take? Who knows? In my head I picture a long, cylindrical craft with a nuclear reactor and a large Ion Engine, maybe with supplementary solar panels and a couple of MPCVs attached and carrying supplies, a hydroponics area, and several (both manned and unmanned) Mars rovers.

A Space Elevator or Magnetic Launch System would be better, or we should use my pet Favorite Technology X instead.

Maybe. Either of those two things would truly be an amazing sight. But we’re not there yet and we need to get started on our next vehicle right now. It is my hope that the success of space entrepreneurs and new progress in pushing outward will bring economic pressure on the development of these systems. It may indeed be that what NASA is doing now is just a stopgap measure, but isn’t it always? That’s like saying why do we want to build the next thing, when we can wait and build the thing after that? Because sometimes you need something right away, and in those cases you make the best of what you have and know.

In conclusion, I will miss the Shuttle. I will miss its sleekness, its aura as a symbol of progress and human achievement. I am so, so very grateful for the role it played in my upbringing and the formation of my ideas and hopes for the future. I am in awe of all those who made the program possible, and I have nothing but respect for the men and women who flew it and kept it flying. I cannot wait to make the pilgrimage to the Smithsonian to see one; and heck yes I use the word pilgrimage with all of its quasi-religious implications. But the end of the Shuttle is not the end of our aspirations or of American dominance and ingenuity in space. We do face challenges, the greatest of which is simply making up our minds and choosing a direction to stick with. But now is not the time to abandon NASA or to let the nostalgia and sadness of the moment cloud our judgement. We cannot let a failure of imagination stop us from rallying around NASA and the brilliant space entrepreneurs who will continue to take mankind to our destiny in Space.

Comments are closed.