To Infinity and Beyond, No More

Space Shuttle Atlantis took off as scheduled Friday, and the 135th mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle program will be its last. In the world of recessions, Tea Parties and budget cuts, there’s no room for a fleet of 30 year old Shuttles.

Many are sad as the reality sinks in that the remaining 3 Shuttles are retiring to museums, but others question whether the program was worth the $196 billion spent over the years.

What started out as a Cold War competition soon filled our heads with patriotic pride and lofty goals of space exploration. NASA was an agency of geniuses who made dreams come true. They shot the Mercury project into space, and then took JFK’s commands to heart with Gemini and got Apollo to the moon.

Recognizing the huge benefits derived from an ambitious space program, our leaders tasked NASA with coming up with a cheap, reusable way to take Americans to and from space.

What a sight. You’ll never see it again

The Space Shuttle Program was born. With it came Columbia, the first to fly in 1981, followed by Discovery, Atlantis, Challenger and eventually Endeavor. 

The shuttle program was supposed to cost $90billion. In reality it cost more than twice that and flew less than half the missions originally hoped. Each mission cost approximately $1.45 billion a flight. We lost two of those ships Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, and with them the lives of 14 Astronauts. No one can argue that the loss of the Challenger was one of the more indelible images of the 1980’s, and the major “where were you when?” moment of my generation.

Putting a teacher on this flight, and getting schoolkids to tune in, might not have been the best idea here…

Trying to put aside the awe-inspiring feat of regularly sending human beings off our planet and into outer space, what do we have to show for it?

We got some cool ass pictures to be sure, the amazing Hubble telescope that opened worlds for us, as well as one of mankind’s greatest engineering marvels, the International Space Station. NASA also claims that shuttle crews conducted over 2300 experiments, and that over 1700 space-age technologies have been commercialized with around 100 “spinoffs” from the Space Shuttle Program now a part of our everyday life. The Palm Beach Post listed some of the spinoffs:

  • Artificial heart: More than 200 patients received a second chance at life with tiny heart pumps developed from space shuttle fuel pump technology.
  • Automotive insulation: NASCAR race cars shield drivers from extreme engine heat using materials from the same thermal protection system used to safeguard NASA astronauts onboard the space shuttle.
  • Infrared hand-held camera: Firefighters locate hot spots in wildfires by scanning the flames with sensitive infrared hand-held cameras, first used by NASA to observe the blazing plumes from shuttles.
  • Rescue tool: Rescue squads use a hand-held cutter to remove accident victims from wrecked vehicles. Based on a miniature version of the explosive charges used to separate the shuttle from the solid-rocket boosters after launch, this device requires no auxiliary power or unwieldy hoses.
  • Land mine removal device: The same rocket fuel used to propel the space shuttle skyward helps save lives on Earth by destroying land mines. An explosive flare is placed next to the uncovered land mine, then ignited from a safe distance. The explosive burns away, disabling the mine and rendering it harmless.

“Did you bring the tickets? No? I told YOU to get them off the nightstand. Now what are we gonna do?

Probably the most important thing we got out of the Space Shuttle Program was 30 years of collective hopes and dreams. I know I’m not the only one who drew space shuttles in my notebooks and dreamed (unsuccessfully) of being an astronaut. The space shuttle always represented the pinnacle of human achievement, at least until I discovered sex. Astronauts were brilliantly smart heroes; educated role models who didn’t just reach for the stars, but touched them.

We also felt better as a people because of it. The space shuttle program brought us together; first bonding among ourselves to take on the evil Red Empire, then helped us bridge the gap with that same Empire by working together on building the ISS. It was about national pride, and then pride as a worldly people.

But now those dreams have to come to an end for a while. We just can’t afford them.

It won’t just be our dreams dying with the 30 year old shuttle program, but also the economy of the “Space Coast” of Florida. You want to talk about livelihood? Its rumored that almost a million people will descend to Florida to watch the final shuttle launch. That’s a lot of tourists. Unfortunately, once its done, 8,000 people will lose their jobs at the Kennedy Space Center, and more than 25,000 will be financially affected without the beautiful shuttle looming in the background.

How much do you think it cost to fill that tank?

So what will become of NASA? George W Bush tried to reset their goals and get ambitious with manned flights again. He had NASA tease us with talks of a new space ship, Orion, as well as the Constellation program to get us to the moon and to build a moon base. Some cool stuff to get our heads going and forget about the crap the world had in store for us.

Unfortunately, President Obama had NASA scrap Constellation and other headline grabbing missions due to lack of realistic funding. Obama now has NASA focused more on Deep Space missions, which of course means unmanned. No Americans exploring the reaches of space, just robots. Still cool, but way less dreamy. Any manned missions will be limited to when we can hitch rides to the ISS from other countries, or whenever Boeing and SpaceX begin commercial space flights.

This is the first time in its history that NASA hasn’t had another program to transition into. Talk about your political policy blunders. It also means that without goals, or even good national attention, the top talent will leave NASA, and the brain drain will be felt for decades to come.

Craigslist Ad: Space Shuttle, seats 7, room for satellite, logged 140 million miles, made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs

So when Atlantis finishes its 12 day mission, it will retire to a permanent home in the Kennedy Space Center Museum.

It will always be a reminder of a day when we we were encouraged to dream, and to “boldly go where no man has gone before” was actually a possibility.

Now we are once again stuck here in the gravity of reality, looking up at the stars. Maybe one day soon we’ll be allowed to encourage our kids, our future astronauts, to dream big again.

“No its the 2nd star to the right…to the RIGHT!”

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