I played hooky from work for a little while this morning. I turned on Today on NBC to watch the incredible glory of a Shuttle launch. While I was at it, I brought up Twitter on my BlackBerry so I could read Rob Pegoraro’s live Tweets of the event. Rob was only about three miles away, feeling the blast and hearing the overwhelming sound that constitutes a launch into space.
Later, after Endeavour achieved orbit, I learned of an unexpected first after all of these years of Shuttle launches. Stefanie Gordon, a New Jersey blogger, happened to be in the right place at the right time, and caught the launch on her way to Florida from the window of an airliner. I know that this isn’t the first time that a Shuttle launch was seen from an airliner, but as far as I know, it’s the first time someone saw it, took the photo on a smartphone, and then Tweeted the photo. Oh, and she shot video, too.
There are plenty of things to make you feel good about the launch. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords got out of her rehabilitation hospital in Houston long enough to sit atop an observation building at the Kennedy Space Center and watch the Shuttle, commanded by Navy Captain- and Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly break the surly bonds of Earth one last time. “Good stuff, good stuff,” the Associated Press is reporting that she said, once things quieted down enough to hear anything.
Endeavour is carrying a supercooled magnetic tunnel called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that might or might not provide a breakthrough in particle physics. It’s carrying prototypes for tiny satellites that would be blown around by the solar wind and return information about the solar system. The prototypes will live on the outside of the Space Station.
I could go on for pages about the science that’s being done by Endeavour and its crew. Some of those experiments, like the tiny satellites, could be done by anything that can reach the Space Station, but others, such as the AMS, require the Shuttle. Once the Shuttle is gone, there will be no means of lifting those heavy payloads, at least for now. Unfortunately, the Shuttle has been killed-and right now there’s no replacement.
U.S. Manned Space Program Nears Extinction
In fact, the tragedy of Endeavour is that this is the last run. For a variety of reasons, or perhaps more accurately, excuses, there is no follow-on, at least not now. There’s no doubt you’ll hear some whining about the fact that we’ve been in a recession, so why waste money in space? Or you’ll hear excuses about how it costs too much money. But the fact is that the United States has lost the political will to explore space. Where once this nation was the leader in space flight, in science and engineering, in math, now we’ve become losers.
We can, of course, blame any number of people for this. But the fault should be placed where it needs to be placed. After years of mismanagement by a series of administrations, the manned space program has devolved into a political mess in which NASA wasted much of its resources trying to satisfy Congress instead of run a space program. Despite this, the agency has had its share of successes. But one can only wonder what we might have achieved had it not been for political meddling in science.
Sadder still is there were once successors to the Shuttle, but the Obama administration killed them, and probably with some justification. These programs had become so bogged down in bureaucracy that they were years late and billions over budget. The same group of people who now can’t figure out a budget also couldn’t figure out how to let NASA go into space.
So, because of Congressional fumbling, ineptitude in the Executive branch and a complete lack of-well I won’t use the word here, we’re giving up. Space exploration will now be handled by the Europeans, the Japanese and the Chinese. It will be China that returns to the moon, not the United States. And it will probably be China that travels to Mars. The United States simply can’t bring itself to accomplish a task that’s truly difficult, like traveling into space. Sure, we’ve done it before, but this is all too hard. So instead we whimper and look inward instead of upward as we used to.
Still, Endeavour is in space as this is written. It’ll be at the Space Station for a couple of weeks, and then it’ll land and the second-to-last carcass of manned space will be fought over by cities that want it for tourist dollars. The second-to-last Shuttle crew will return to ordinary lives, doomed to never fly in space again. And by the final flight this summer, the United States will surrender its technical leadership to others. The end may take a while, but it’s already started.