The final flight of the space shuttle marks the end of an era, leaving a vacuous trail to an uncertain future. Its absence will bring into focus potentially wrenching decisions ahead for the future of human spaceflight.
As an engineering achievement, the space shuttle is without peer, designed and built by the geniuses that sprang from the Apollo program. The sight, sound and feel of a space shuttle launch can only be understood by direct experience. The space shuttle is not just a rocket. It is a complex, reusable space transportation system--part rocket, part plane and part mini space station--that has enabled a crew of up to seven astronauts to conduct missions to learn how to live and work in space for weeks at a time, performing scientific experiments, deploying and repairing satellites of every conceivable type, assembling and supporting space stations and then returning back to Earth. The space shuttle has unique capabilities--such as the ability to grapple and service large satellites, perform major repairs on the space station, and return significant-sized cargo back to Earth--that will never be replaced and will probably be sorely missed someday. Although versions of these features could be built into future systems, it will come at a cost, and they're not likely to match the capability and versatility of the space shuttle. The shuttle's main task over the past decade has been to support the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), which is now complete.
The space shuttle, though, is also a cultural icon. Just look around and take note every time you see a reminder of the space shuttle. Whether it's on TV, in the movies, on license plates, or on a kid's toy--it's just about everywhere. Symbols are important, and the space shuttle is an important symbol. To me, it symbolizes American ingenuity and technological prowess and a core belief that we are explorers and risk-takers looking to the next frontier. The space shuttle has also inspired countless young students to study engineering and science, probably its greatest legacy.
But the space shuttle program has fallen far short of its original goal of providing routine, low-cost access to space. The space shuttle was born in the waning days of Apollo. After planting flags on the moon to win the space race, NASA set its sights on making transportation to space routine, affordable and accessible. While these goals were laudable, in practice they were unachievable. The total cost of the space shuttle program since its inception in the early 1970s is estimated to be $174 billion. That's an average of about $4 billion each year, or about $1.3 billion for each of the 135 flights. While the space shuttle's unique capabilities were indeed impressive, the shuttle's costs were prohibitive, and the rationale for sending humans into space sometimes seemed conjured up simply to justify the program's existence. For the past decade or so, the quip was that we have the space shuttle to support the space station and we have the space station because we need somewhere to go with the space shuttle.
Sadly, the space shuttle program also experienced two tragic accidents, resulting in the death of 14 brave astronauts. The Challenger accident in 1986 shattered impressions of the space program's infallibility. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry and was a harsh reminder of the risks of spaceflight. The Columbia accident triggered a reexamination of the mission and goals for human spaceflight that continues to reverberate today.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) observed that for decades we have lacked a "national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space." I would have to say that's pretty much where we still are nearly eight years after the CAIB wrote these words.
Since Columbia, there have been various proclamations, visions, and plans set forth for the future for human spaceflight. There has even been occasional agreement between Congress and the White House, such as when Congress endorsed the Bush administration's goal of returning to the moon by 2020 in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (endorsed again in 2008), but the plans never gained the kind of traction and support to be considered a "national mandate," and when it came down to it, the money wasn't there. Sure, the plans were mandated by national figures, but that's not the same as a national mandate.
In 2010, Congress passed its latest policy bill for NASA--touted by its principal authors as a blueprint for NASA--but the bill utterly fails to establish any clear mission goals or compelling reason for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. Not that there aren't potentially worthy missions or destinations, but there isn't a consensus or compelling answers to the questions "Where are we going?" "What is the mission?" "Why are we doing this?" Instead, the 2010 bill focuses on technical details and prescribes the preferred design and performance for the rocket Congress would like NASA to build, and so in that sense it is a blueprint of sorts. But without clear and compelling goals, and without realistic assumptions regarding budgets and technical complexity, this plan will be recycled like the others.
There are deeply held passions in the human spaceflight community, and some suggest that its fervor is akin to a religion--perhaps a religion with feuding factions. Leadership from all corners is desperately needed to build a consensus and to forge an achievable and sustainable path forward. The budget crunch looming over the horizon suggests there won't be another chance.
After the roar of the final shuttle, the deafening silence from the Kennedy Space Center will be difficult to hear.
This essay is part of an Inside NOVA series on the final shuttle launch and the future of human space exploration. Read previous entries by space policy expert John Logsdon and "Hubble's Amazing Rescue" producer Rush DeNooyer.