Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Dream Landing: What The Shuttle's Retirement Means For The Future Of Spaceflight

As the Space Shuttle program winds down, Dreaming Genius co-editor Tony Nunes looks back and forwards at the dream of spaceflight.

Every kid has a dream.  Every kid needs a dream.  At 9-years-old I was doodling space shuttles in my notebooks, clutching a matchbox toy shuttle in my pocket, and obsessing over coffee table book pictorials on the Apollo program.  While loads of kids my age were playing with Return of the Jedi action figures and pretending to fly the Millennium Falcon, I dreamt of space flight in the practical sense.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Star Wars geek tenfold, but when it came to that ideal of true spaceflight, I wanted nothing more than to become an astronaut. 

It’s for this reason that I’ve found the past few weeks, and the looming months to be a particularly bittersweet time for space-nuts like myself.  Early Tuesday morning Space Shuttle Endeavour landed at Kennedy Space Center, ending the second to last Space Shuttle mission before the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in July.  As Endeavour prepped its descent, Space Shuttle Atlantis made the long and slow trip towards the launch pad, rolling out what will be the final Shuttle mission on July 8th, NASA’s last planned manned spaceflight for the foreseeable future.  I find this to be a sad ending.  Granted, I never actually became an astronaut, but the mere dream of becoming one filled my childhood with such wonder, hope and amazement.  The Space Shuttle represented something mythical yet attainable, a dream laced with actual hope and achievability.  

I mentioned that I dreamt of spaceflight in the practical sense, and can understand that to some, there is no practical sense in spending billions of dollars to launch men into orbit.  I disagree, but that is a debate for another time.  Now is the time to look back at the Space Shuttle program and forward to the future of spaceflight, and ponder what the next generation of dreamers will have to look forward to.   

Look back at the earlier missions of the 60’s and early 70’s, the booming space race between Russia and the US, and you will notice that NASA was at the forefront of this technologically fast moving time in exploration.  The space program was very much a part of the American Dream, a new rhetoric of innovation and nationalism.  When the Mercury Program launched Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, NASA ignited a new pride in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike.  Project Gemini expanded on the program, testing and implementing longer spaceflights, orbital maneuvering, and the first spacewalk.  Gemini was the test run for the Apollo program, a manned spaceflight initiative that would outdo all others, and in some ways fail to be outdone by the implementation of the Space Shuttle.  On July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon.  Since the end of the Apollo program, astronauts have yet to step foot on another celestial body.

In 1975 the space race between Russia and the US ended with the joint Apollo-Soyuz launch that would mark NASA’s last manned space mission until 1981.  On April 12th 1981 the next era in Space travel began with the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, one of five Shuttle’s created as the first reusable manned spacecraft.  This was the era where my obsession kicked in, as the Shuttle represented a new look, a fixed wing craft that could vertically launch and horizontally land.  The look and feel of the Shuttle was the epitome of the Sci-Fi sensibility.  It looked like we wanted our Spaceships to look like.  The shuttle would become the new symbol of the practical dreamer.  While once, people caught dreaming were accused of having their heads in the stars, now said accusation had become something positive.  The Shuttle era had begun.

Combined, the five Shuttle’s, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour have flown 134 missions, with Atlantis set to fly the final, 135th mission in July.  While the Shuttle was only able to sustain low-earth orbit, its three-decade long reign has played host to a number of scientific innovations.  The most notable innovations were the launch of the Hubble telescope in the 90’s, and the construction of the International Space Station.  The Hubble telescope allowed us to view the universe in ways that were not previously possible, ways that have come to foster a new understanding in the physics and astronomy fields.  The study of the universe is one whose vast importance overlaps science with faith, a true depiction of what is, was and will be.  One thing the Hubble can’t see is what will become of the Space program after the Shuttle’s retirement this summer.

Some have tossed around ideas of rehashing Russia’s failed Buran Space Shuttle program, but those talks ended with Obama’s plan for deeper orbit missions in NASA’s future. For now, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft can take astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which will be pushed into deeper orbit to avoid a similar fate to that of the Skylab Station.  Because of the six year gap between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, the Skylab Space Station reentered earth’s atmosphere, burning up on reentry.  With the billions spent so far on the ISS, that fate would be unacceptable. 

In April of last year President Obama gave an excellent speech on his administrations Space policy, explaining that “as President, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it’s not an afterthought in America’s quest for a brighter future -- it is an essential part of that quest.” Obama’s commitment to the program is clear, it’s just the outcome of his focus that's still up for debate.  The Constellation program was set to take the place of the Space Shuttle program.  Constellation was to be a super-heavy-lift spacecraft that would bring manned crews back to the moon, onto other celestial bodies like asteroids, and eventually to Mars.  The program, which would have used capsule spacecraft was cancelled by Obama in 2010 due to budgetary restrictions, and its falling behind schedule.  Obama has however committed to “invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on” the creation of a new “heavy lift rocket” that will be “designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space.”  Obama further outlines his hope that “by the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth” with “a landing on Mars” to follow shortly thereafter.

So will it happen?  The jury is still out.  Just last week however, NASA unveiled its new deep-space Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a modification from the Orion capsule component leftover from the cancelled Constellation program.  If it works out, the MPCV could make Obama’s plan a reality, and give a whole new generation the dream of spaceflight like its never been dreamt before. The economic crisis around the world will be the true determining factor of the future of NASA, and manned space travel as we know it.  Each Space Shuttle costs an estimated 1.7 billion dollars with each launch costing upwards of 450 million per mission. This cost, which is far greater than anticipated at the Shuttles inception, along with safety issues on the aging vehicles are what have led to the Shuttles retirement.  

There have been two tragic accidents involving the Space Shuttle, with the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger during its launch in 1986, killing its entire crew, and the re-entry disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, with a similarly tragic fate for its crew.  Both Shuttle disasters were marked by the sorrow of a world of dreamers, yet still, the hope for future spaceflights lived on.   

Economically however, these two tragedies coupled with the high costs of the program had also led to a shift towards the privatization of the Space industry, with commercial companies developing spacecraft to unburden the taxpayer from future funding. Companies like Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and United Launch Alliance have already begun work on commercial crew developments.

When it comes to the future, a lot is in the works, but for the most part, it’s a very uncertain path to reach that next great point in the history of Space travel.  I think Obama’s description of the importance of the Space program sums it up best; “for pennies on the dollar, the space program has fueled jobs and entire industries. For pennies on the dollar, the space program has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy, and inspired generations of Americans.”  Better make that generations the world over.  Inspiration is the key to innovation, and the hope that drives our existence.  I hope that the exploration continues, and our dreams live on for generations to come.


katelyn said...

Good article it almost changed my opinion on the matter, however I'm still not convinced that the space program is vital. Enjoyed reading it though. You can tell your passionate about the subject.

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