Final Shuttle Launch Portends Bleak Future for U.S. Manned Space Program

News Analysis: Despite the brave talk from NASA and aerospace contractors, the U.S. has thrown in the towel in manned space exploration with the launch of the final shuttle mission.

I watched the final space shuttle launch just as I did the first one-on television. There were differences. When Columbia launched, I was watching the television mounted on the bulkhead of the wardroom of a U.S. Navy Perry-class frigate.

Right afterward, I walked out on deck to see the tiny, bright speck followed by an immense cloud as it reached into the Florida sky miles down the coast from our pier. That was the last time I actually saw a shuttle launch.

Today, it was a much improved television, and a much clearer view. And after all of these years, it's still hard to believe the magnificence when you see 4.4 million pounds of exquisitely complicated spacecraft ascend into the heavens. But that was the last time I'll ever see such a flight. For the launch of Atlantis was more than the end of a program. The launch of Atlantis was the end of manned spaceflight in the United States. We will never see another craft carrying people launch from the Kennedy Spaceflight Center.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of people who believe the brave words of NASA that we will return in four years-that we will have another spacecraft, perhaps one from Space-X, perhaps one from another contractor. But the fact is this will never happen. The federal bureaucracy, combined with aggressively anti-science members of Congress, will ensure that another flight carrying a person never leaves from a NASA facility.

I also know that there are several private efforts under way that promise manned spaceflight. Virgin Galactic will probably provide suborbital rides to space for the very rich. There are other companies that promise to do the same. But these do nothing for the advancement of science. They do nothing for the exploration of space. They are entertainment, pure and simple.

So how is it that the U.S., a once-proud space-faring nation, has given up? It is, in short, because we no longer have the political and intellectual will to do things that are hard. We no longer wish to stir ourselves from our comfort to strive for anything. It wasn't always that way.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," said President John F. Kennedy, speaking at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962. Kennedy was explaining why it was necessary to spend the money and effort to create a real space program, and he set forth to inspire the U.S. to do it. I remember every step of the way.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...