I’m not known for overt sentimentality, but watching the TV coverage of the last Space Shuttle returning to earth last Thursday morning was one of the saddest moments I can recall. Once Atlantis touched down it was all over; there would never be another Shuttle.
I’ve always had a penchant for all things space related. As a child I dreamt of space ships, aliens and far flung galaxies, religiously followed every NASA mission, and was glued to the TV screen each time a Shuttle rocketed into the sky or landed. I’d often wished to have been born some years earlier, to have witnessed the thrill of watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. (Undoubtedly influenced by my dad’s recollection of that incredible event as one of the most memorable of his lifetime). It didn’t matter that we were in the then Eastern Bloc; we watched the various US advances into space with awe and pride, just as millions of Americans did. It was yet another milestone for Western civilization and human achievement. The greatest of human adventures.
I was convinced some years later we’d get to Mars and beyond. Alas, it was not to be. I suppose it’s fitting that all this is over now. The US (and the West) have given up. The end of manned space flight is just one more symptom of the cultural, moral and economic decline.
The space program was an expression of the energetic, vigorous, optimistic, united America of the late 1950s. It symbolized the country’s ambitions, aspirations and hopes for a better future, its belief that Americans can achieve great things and do them better than anyone else. All that is history now. Today’s America lacks a sense of identity and vision, its confidence is on the wane, exceptionalism has become a nasty word, unity has been replaced by tribal rancor, idealism and pioneer spirit are long gone, substituted by all-pervasive bureaucracy and political correctness.
Is it surprising that instead of reaching out to the stars manned space flight is returning to where it started – science fiction?
The landing of Atlantis ended the 30-year Space Shuttle program. The entire US space age lasted just five decades: it was May 5, 1961 when Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital flight made him the first American in space. Just eight years later Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon.
The Space Shuttle fleet began setting records with Columbia’s launch on April 12, 1981 and continued with Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor. The Shuttle has, during its 135 missions, carried people into orbit, launched and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the International Space Station. One of its key successes was the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope (launched into space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990); the Shuttle and its astronauts were also crucial for each repair and servicing Hubble needed over the years. (Hubble, aside of giving us hundreds of thousands of awesome images, has revolutionized our knowledge of astronomy.)
Countless technological innovations we take for granted today are also result of the US space program and Shuttle research. The Space Shuttle program alone has generated more than 120 technology spinoffs, including miniaturized heart pumps that save lives, thermal protection system materials, bioreactors (help chemists design new drugs and antibodies), compact laboratory instruments, sensitive hand-held infrared cameras, light-emitting diodes for treatment of cancerous tumors, lighter and stronger prosthetic limbs, an extrication tool to remove accident victims from wrecked vehicles, and many more. (NASA has an entire website dedicated to spinoff technology.)
Now the Shuttle is gone and there is nothing to take its place. The US no longer has the ability to put astronauts into orbit. NASA will have to rely on the Russians to hitch a ride to the International Space Station – on the old-fashioned Soyuz spacecraft, at some $50 million per ride.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. A few years ago George W. Bush announced the return to manned space exploration with the Constellation program. Missions to the Moon (by 2020) were to be followed by a manned flight to Mars and beyond. Then came Barack Obama who, believing in social programs and wealth redistribution rather than science and exploration, promptly cancelled Constellation, the country’s only chance at continuing with human space flight.
In any case the space program no longer seems appropriate for today’s America. Space exploration was a symbol and inspiration for Americans who believed in excellence, courage, self-reliance, achievement, science (hard science, not the politically correct pseudo-science of today). That country no longer exists; its spirit has been broken. The “virtues” America, and the West, worship today – equality, diversity, feminism – are a fast-track to a third world status, not to the stars.
As much as we may want to convince ourselves otherwise, it seems clear we no longer have the ability to achieve great things, space flight or otherwise. I suspect Bruce Charlton is onto something when he writes that “human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since”.
“This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability. “
The US space program started on its downward trajectory in the early 70s, slowly drifting away from further development of deep space missions and new technologies. (The Shuttle itself is 1970s technology and should have been replaced by a new generation of spaceships years ago.) NASA has been gradually taken over by technologically and managerially inept bureaucrats lacking any vision and imagination. Instead of attracting the brightest engineers, scientists and innovators, the agency has cared more about politics and displaying its commitment to ‘diversity’. Well, at least now that manned space flight is no longer, NASA can work on its preferred mission – Muslim outreach.
Those who claim the US could no longer afford its space program would be well advised to look at the actual NASA budget. While during most of the 1960s NASA spending came to between 2-5% of the annual federal budget, since mid 70s it’s been less than 1% and in the last few years only about 0.50% of the federal budget ($17-18 billion p.a.).
So you can’t afford to spend a minuscule share of the annual fed budget – one half of one percent! – on space exploration, but consider it a good use of money to waste a couple of trillions on entitlements and welfare programs and $700 billion on stifling bureaucracies (i.e. various executive departments and agencies, most of which would serve the nation best by being abolished)? Not to forget the estimated $3 trillion cost of ObamaCare.
And what about the supposedly too expensive Space Shuttle program itself? The total cost of the Shuttle program over its entire four decade lifespan (including 10 years of R&D) was just under $200 billion. Expensive? Well, the US federal government, at present rate, spends $200 billion every three weeks!
I don’t see anything that has brought taxpayers a comparable return in industrial and technological advancement, increased understanding of our world and universe, as well as prestige, pride and inspiration as the manned space program.
But this isn’t about money or savings… it’s about a nation’s priorities. An America that spends trillions of dollars a year on welfare, entitlements and bureaucracy is an America that lacks any purpose, identity or belief in future; a space program is something such a nation has no use for.
Mankind has always felt the call to explore and push back the boundaries of human capability. I have no doubt there were people in Columbus’s day who wanted to find a ‘better’ use for the money that was to finance his voyages. Thankfully King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had more vision and sense than Barack Obama.
We can only hope that a more enlightened people, perhaps the Chinese or Russians or Indians, are going to take over space exploration and become a beacon of hope and inspiration to those in the rest of the world, as America once used to be.
Thank you, Space Shuttle, for all the memories.
Atlantis – final landing (video)