Is It The End?

Today the Space Shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission.  There will be no more US shuttle missions.  It’s worth noting that most of my hardcore space friends did not bother to watch the landing live on TV, and neither did I.  That’s where we are.

See, I actually remember watching Apollo launches.  They were big deals.  They’re why I even once applied to be an astronaut! As a kid, I re-read that one issue of National Geographic about Skylab perhaps a hundred times.  I got up early to watch the very first shuttle launch –the Columbia— on April 12, 1981.  It was crewed by John Young, a veteran of the moonwalks, and Robert Crippen on his very first mission.  It makes me feel old that Crippen is now retired and Young is 80.

That first launch was such a media circus.  It was uncertain whether some of the re-entry tiles had been sloughed off during launch, so the military had to reveal that they had telescopes powerful enough to inspect the shuttle’s underside from Earth.  It was a bit of a minor sensation.

What burns hottest in my memory is a version of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again”, renamed “Columbia”.  They played it ad nauseam and it is now more familiar to me than the original.

I also remember, prior to the shuttle era, administrators harping on about how they hoped the shuttle would make space travel routine.  As a kid, I found this prospect quite exciting.  However, I hope you can see the problem.  NASA sort of succeeded.  And in that success, they lost the public imagination.  When something becomes routine, it becomes easier to cut its budget ’cause no one’s going to notice.

The end of US manned space travel is indicative of so many things.  I hardly know where to begin.  I’ve written about the affordability of manned space travel quite often in this space, most recently here, and with respect to unmanned missions here.    But on a geopolitical level, America’s decision to rely upon other countries to ferry her Astronauts to orbit and beyond reflects a nation resigned to its role as a declining empire.

It’s also indicative of a strange set of priorities.  Could the money be better spent on social programs?  Of course.  But the cost is equivalent to a few aircraft carriers.  Why not curtail military spending to sustain a world class space program that employs hundreds of thousands, assures American presence at the forefront of materials and space science, invests in a score of spin-off technologies and therefore industries, and whose product is peace, not death?

With the cancellation of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, also called the Orion, America (and thus its associated agencies, including the Canadian Space Agency) intends to rely on Russian and, eventually, private launches.

The other geopolitical element here is that both China and India are frantically developing space programs.  Both intend on being on the Moon by 2020, and China has already put men into space.

Are any of you still in doubt about the power shift to Asia?  One day, Neil Armstrong’s landing site might be a curious museum in the middle of a sprawling Chinese lunar colony.  Given China’s penchant for longterm policy planning, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.