Goodbye, Space Shuttle Program

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Space Shuttle Endeavour landed for the last time last week. This was not just the last flight for the Endeavour but now all that remains for the Space Shuttle program is the last flight of the Atlantis (currently scheduled for July 8th). Given all the focus on cutting budgets right and left, who really knows what it will mean for the American space program or for space programs in general, but the end of the Space Shuttle Program is near.

President Kennedy Says America Will Put A Man on the Moon And Return Him Home Safely By the End of the Decade... And America Answered

The U.S.S.R. was leading in the Space Race and President Kennedy challenged and inspired America....

"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters" (President Kennedy's address before Congress on May 25, 1961.

JFK - We choose to go to the Moon, full length (Address a Rice University)

In a bold and daring move, President Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the Moon. He demonstrated the leadership, vision, and a whole host of other things that were needed to make this a reality. At a point in the Cold War where others might have thought that this was a crazy idea, he shared the dream and what space exploration and travel could mean to America and the world. America heard the call and put a man on the Moon (and returned him home safely). Below I've embedded President Kennedy's address at Rice University (above) and his address to congress (below) where he laid out the vision and the challenge. Both videos show a visionary leadership that is hard to find in the world today.

John F. Kennedy "Landing a man on the Moon" Address to Congress - May 25, 1961

The Space Shuttle Program

The "Space Transport System" (the offical NASA name for the Space Shuttle Program) was different than previous programs in that it was based on the use of a few reuseable spacecrat compared to the more "conventional" approach to "disposable" rockets. The Endeavour flight was number 134 and the upcoming Atlantis will be number 135. The Columbia's first mission was in 1981, so the program has had 30 years of service.

There are certainly plenty of criticisms that can be made of the Space Shuttle Program. Without getting into all the details they tend to fall into the categories of costs; cultural issues and problems (the shift in NASA culture away from saftey in order to make frequent launches), Shuttle operations, and the accidents of the Challenger and Columbia, and so on. There is a nice entry at Wikipedia on the Criticisms of the Space Shuttle Program that gives a nice summary of some of the more common ones. So, I won't argue that there could not have been better programs or that there weren't ways that the program could have been improved, far from it. The focus on the program, it could be argued, slowed down other developments because the bulk of the budget and focus was on the Shuttle Program. In order to make the program more attactive to Congress, work was spread to several companies based in several different locations throughout the U.S., this added a great deal of complexity and opperational costs, and since the aerospace industry went through a lot of consolidation, ultimately, most of the Shuttle is coming from just one company, Boeing. There are plenty of lessons that can and should be learned from the Space Shuttle Program, but they need to be learned and applied, not just a decission to end all space programs because they're seen as too costly.

Our Future In Space

At a time when our current age seems so bleek and nobody really seems to want to think past today let alone to the future, we need the bright promise of a space program that is commited and has a compelling mission that engages the people. We need the hope of a brighter tomorrow, not one more dismal than today.

Every since I was a little boy I've dreamed of space travel and seeing other worlds. I was captivated by Captain Kirk and later by the world of Star Wars, but I've always thought that we should be exploring space, that this is something we MUST do. Without a high profile program and the right backing, I fear that space exploration and travel will become a victim of budget battles and I wonder if it will ever again have the the emphysis that it needs. We don't have a President Kennedy inspiring us to send a man (or woman) to the moon (or a host of other seemingly far away locations) and safely return him (or her) within this decade.

We don't have someone inspiring us to develope an affordable and safe successor to the Space Shuttle Program. We don't have someone motivating us to find faster ways to travel the astronomical distances of light years (warp drive technology to borrow a term from Star Trek). Proxima Centauri, (also called Proxima, or Alpha Centauri C), considered the closest star to our own Sun, is approximately 4.24 light years from our Sun. A light year is the distance that light travels in a vacume within one Julian year and is equal to approximately 10 trillion kilometers or 6 trillion miles. (Wikipedia) A plane flying 400.2 miles per hour would take 20 years to fly the 93 million plus miles from the Earth to the Sun. (kidsinflight) So you can see why it would be necessary to travel faster than the speed of light to travel the vast distances of space within one's own lifetime.

President Kennedy had a lot of compelling things to say about going into space in his "We Choose to go to the Moon" speech to Rice University (September 12, 1962), including that space like science didn't have a conscience of its own and that if it were to be used for good or bad that would depend upon man. He also thought that space could be explored without feeding wars and other mistakes that man has made. He said that man was determined and space exploration would go on with out without us but that this generation wanted to be a part of it and would lead it.

"Why go into space when we have so many problems here on Earth?" and "What does the space program do for me?" are a couple of questions that are often raised about having a space program and funding it. What is often overlooked and/or forgotten is that for every dollar spent on the space program in research and development there is a huge return (around $7) in terms of corporate and personal income taxes from increased jobs and ecomonic growth (NASA's Spinoffs Bringing Space Down to Earth). The space program has helped forge and improve countless products and services. Satellite television and dishes would be kind of pointless without Satellites orbiting the world. The navigation system in your car wouldn't work to well without the Statellites either. Countless software programs have been adopted and utilized for all kinds fo things as a result of the space program. Imagine that we wouldn't have Google Earth or probably a host of other Google products. Much of the technology sector, medicine, and electronics owe a huge debt to work that they've done with or for the space program.

The future benefits of space exploration and travel are almost limitless. All kinds of new materials have been created through the space program, what kinds of other materials can we create through continued space programs, maybe we can derive a replacement for plastic that doesn't use petroleum or all kinds of other materials. By building colonies in space and colonizing planets we can avoid many of the natural disasters that we've experienced in the last few years. Can you imagine no more earthquakes, torandos, hurricanes, tsunamis, and flooding? How about planets for the Palestinines and Isralies? The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations.

As the Shuttle Program is winding down Boeing announced that it will lay off 510 workers with the program ending. We need to make space exploration a priority again. In today's world I don't think that any one country needs to lead in space, but if we can pool more of our resouces together and do more projects in cooperation with with ESA, Japan, India, Russia, and other countries involved in space now (and countries interested in becoming involved) we can achieve some great things. How about we commit to building a spacecraft capable of traveling at light speed then we could make a trip to Alpa Centouri and back within a decade instead of over the course of generations? How about finding some planets with an atmoshpere that would support human life and building some colonies?

NASA video: Space shuttle Endeavour final launch

Earth viewed from the moon by Neil Armstrong

Here are some links that you might be interested in
-From cell phones to computers, technology from NASA's space program continues to touch everyday life
-Space Spin-offs: Technology Derived from the Space Program: Lots of interesting links
-Benefits of the Space Program
-Shuttle Missions: Lost of information on the Shuttle missions