Shuttle Atlantis Final Landing Completes U.S. Retreat from Manned Spaceflight

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-07-22

Shuttle Atlantis Final Landing Completes U.S. Retreat from Manned Spaceflight

Early in the predawn Florida darkness, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on Earth for the last time and braked to a stop. After a while, the crew of Atlantis boarded their bus back to their quarters, said a few words, and left America's last Shuttle to the museum curators. Eventually, Atlantis will join other space stuff as part of a giant tourist attraction, showing generations of kids what might have been.

The tragedy of the last shuttle mission is not that the program is over. That was bound to happen eventually. After all, it's been around for 30 years. While the shuttles themselves were rated for 100 missions each, and flew no more than one-third of their total lifetimes, the process of turning them around for launch took so long that for them to fly for the full lifetime of their airframes would have taken a century. Let's face it, that's a long time to depend on old technology.

Instead, the tragedy is that we let the manned space program die without another solution. For now, at least, we must depend on buying rides from the Russians to get to the Space Station. One can only wonder how well that will work now that the Russians have a monopoly on space. One must also wonder if John F. Kennedy, who kicked off the manned space program with a challenge to go to the moon, is turning over in his grave.

Of course, there are plans to follow the shuttle program with commercial vehicles that are capable of carrying crews and supplies to the Space Station. Perhaps these vehicles will be built and perhaps once again the United States will be able to ferry people into orbit. But perhaps they won't. Right now, the future of Space-X, the commercial partner most likely to get the contract to take people into space, exists at the mercy of NASA and Congress. Neither organization has proven to be a reliable partner.

But the real future of manned space flight is beyond the low-Earth orbit where we currently seem stuck. Right now we can't actually get people to geosynchronous orbit, a level we once passed in a few hours on our way to the moon. The moon, of course, is out of reach. Mars is unlikely ever to happen now that we've given up the chase and lost our momentum.

But the exploration has not always been a government function. I live in Virginia, where the first explorers arrived more than 400 years ago. In most history books, the feat of reaching Virginia (which was a vastly more dangerous undertaking than spaceflight ever has been just based on the number of people who lost their lives in the attempt) is credited to the English government.

Commercial Spaceflight Is Far From a Reality

In reality, Virginia was explored, settled and exploited by a private company, the Virginia Company, which was given a charter to explore North America in exchange for the right to exploit it for whatever riches it found.

And the Virginia Company did exploit the new lands, returning with riches ranging from gold to tobacco. Soon, a number of private companies were growing rich and making money for their investors, and North America boomed. You may have noticed the results.

You may also notice that there's a key difference between what we're doing in exploring space now and what they did to explore Virginia 400 years ago. Now, we're treating space as the domain of government. Commercial spaceflight at this point is just another government contract. There is no means for true commercial space exploration.

If manned spaceflight is going to happen again in the United States, then it needs a reason to exist. Perhaps the U.S. government can grant charters to exploit the asteroids or maybe mine the riches of Mars (assuming there are any). But without some hope of financial gain, a corporation isn't going to spend money to take people back into space. More importantly, without some kind of commercial incentive, companies aren't going to do science in space unless they have a clear understanding that they get to keep the results.

So right now, we have no path to space. The shuttle was killed. There is nothing else going our way in the near future. There's a high likelihood that nothing will be carrying people from the United States to space at any significant level ever again.

Yes, I know about Virgin Galactic and the other companies planning suborbital flights, but where they're going isn't space and there is no exploration involved. It might be a fun ride for the rich, but it's not really spaceflight and certainly not exploration. I know about Space-X, but as I said, they live at the will of NASA, whose track record isn't so great.

So that's how it ends. We brought the last shuttle home and it begins its new mission as a slowly decaying museum display. We quietly walk away from manned spaceflight having lost the will to explore. We have given up. We have retreated. We are no more. 

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