The Space Shuttle Program: A Metaphor For America

Jul 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

On 8 July 2011, the US space shuttle program came to an end.  The shuttle Atlantis was the last operational shuttle to be launched into space; its mission was to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).  The space shuttle program lasted for 30 years and involved 135 launches and two tragic disasters (the 1986 Challenger disintegration in mid-air shortly after lift-off and the 2003 Columbia disaster, which broke apart over Texas during re-entry).  Atlantis will now join Endeavor, Discovery and the prototype Enterprise (after the TV series Star Trek) in various museums across the nation.  As a result of the shuttle?s end, billions of dollars in the US budget will be saved, albeit with a loss of a significant number of jobs along Florida?s ?Space Coast?, along with others in Houston and other parts of the country.  Now the ISS will rely on Russian, European and Japanese rockets for its supplies, and as The Economist laments, ?the nation that won the space race by putting Neil Armstrong?s footprint on the moon with Apollo 11, will be without the ability to send astronauts into space.  Any that do [go into space] will [need to] rent seats on the Russian rockets.?  What does all this mean for America?  Is it a symbol for America?s decline or is it not that significant?  Several thoughts.

  • First, a bit of history:  The space shuttle program was actually a compromise.  The original program called for building a shuttle fleet and an orbiting space station simultaneously.  However, President Nixon was unwilling to fund both, so the shuttle program began without any space station.  The subsequent development of the ISS was largely due to the Russians.  The original shuttle design was such that its cargo bay could hold spy satellites.  Therefore, it was a multipurpose ship that could carry all of America?s government and commercial cargoes into space.  Initially, the shuttles were designed to save money because of their reusability.  But a fully reusable spacecraft proved too hard to build, which is why the shuttles carry a huge external fuel tank that is jettisoned into the ocean after each flight.  The shuttle?s engines and the tiles that protect it from the heat of re-entry proved expensive to maintain, and dividing the work among various contractors added to the costs.  Estimates for the cost of each shot into space vary, but the costs have been between $450 million to $1.5 billion for each shuttle launched into space!  As The Economist demonstrates, ?Russia?s expendable Proton rockets (which are almost unchanged since the 1960s and which have a similar cargo capacity to the shuttle) are thought to cost around a quarter of NASA?s figure for the shuttle.?  One of the crowning successes of the shuttle program was the 1993 in-orbit repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.  With its 135 launches, the shuttle program became routine and public interest in the program actually waned.
  • Second, what of the future?  Former President Bush proposed the Constellation Project, which was designed to return America to moon exploration and eventually trips to Mars.  President Obama, upon entering office, cancelled the Project.  Instead, President Obama has outlined his plans for a space program, which has as its signature element the task of ferrying people and equipment into low-Earth orbit missions using the private sector.  For example, later this year two spacecraft, one designed by Orbital Sciences, a Virginia-based firm, and another by SpaceX, a California company run by Elon Musk, an internet entrepreneur, will make cargo runs to the ISS.  So, without the burden of financing regular missions or the space shuttle, presumably NASA now will spend billions of dollars developing new engines, propellants, life-support systems, etc.  NASA?s plans include the Space Launch System, built partly from recycled shuttle parts, and built to lift astronauts and cargo into higher Earth orbits and even further missions to Mars, asteroids, etc.  Nonetheless, Obama?s comments have been vague and void of much detail.  With the current budget and debt woes of the US, the brutal facts are that America is definitely in decline when it comes to space technology or leadership in such technology.  The Economist correctly observes that ?the space race was an outgrowth of the development of ballistic-missile technology, it was fueled by cold-war paranoia about Soviet science and it happened at a time when America?s leaders were willing to spend huge amounts on propaganda.?  Furthermore, future manned missions, to say Mars, would be fraught with incredible dangers?it would take six months, not three days as it does to the moon.  Further, astronauts would be bombarded with cosmic radiation and risk being baked by unpredictable solar flares.  Communication between mission control and Mars would take much longer than the moon, making dealing with emergencies problematic.  But non-human space missions will presumably continue.  For example, robotics can alleviate some of these above-mentioned dangers, as recent robotic missions to Mars and Titan, one of Saturn?s moons, have shown.  And the use of satellites will not diminish, as the enormous number of satellites currently orbiting Earth demonstrates?satellites for farming, military surveillance, telecoms, weather monitoring, TV broadcasts, etc.  But it does seem that the heroic phase of space exploration is over, unless China and/or India take over the leadership.  In 2003, China became the third nation to put a human into orbit atop a rocket it had developed itself.  Since then, China has launched five more ?taikonauts,? as the Chinese call their astronauts, have been sent into orbit.  China is also launching more satellites to attract business for its Long March rockets and, later this year, it plans to build a very small space station of its own.  It also plans a mission to the moon in 2017, with 2025 being a planned manned mission to the moon.  Such opportunities and plans for America are distant, if not impossible, for America?s future in space is uncertain; weighed down by foreign adventures against terrorism and burdened by a crushing debt, it is difficult to see America ever again playing the leading role in space exploration.  So, in a sense, the end of the space shuttle program is a metaphor for where America is?nostalgic about its past heroic achievements but presently in decline.  It simply cannot afford manned space travel any longer and it is ceding such leadership to Russia and perhaps even to China.  It is a most interesting and rather sad development.

See The Economist (2 July 2011), pp. 66-68. PRINT PDF

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