Truly by co-incidence I got to be in the Washington DC area for the arrival of the Space Shuttle Discovery at the National Air & Space Museum’s Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center. I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Discovery as it flew around the area on the back of the 747 transport aircraft, and after much prodding from Patricia made the drive out to the museum to see Discovery and Enterprise nose to nose outside the museum and to see Discovery get rolled into her new home in the museum.
It was fantastic to get the opportunity to see the two shuttles together and to watch Discovery get moved in – but at the same time it was a very sad moment for me. In many ways I think this shirt from Think Geek sums it up…
Growing up I never had a phase where I got into cowboys – but I was into space travel and space exploration. The Apollo missions had already wrapped up, but I was alive when Skylab was launched. When Skylab came back down, my friends and I combed the neighborhood looking for pieces of the space station – never mind that it didn’t come down over the New York City Suburbs.
The introduction of Enterprise and then Columbia was a big deal to me. I had all kinds of space shuttle toys, took the Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual out of the library countless times. The wallpaper in my bedroom was a cutaway print pattern of the shuttles.
The Shuttle Fleet was supposed to be the gateway to the solar system for us. On the backs of the Shuttles space stations would be built. Those space stations would be the jump-off point to the Moon and to Mars. The Shuttles were supposed to bring in a new economy too – with exotic manufacturing taking place on the forthcoming space stations which would get their raw materials mined from asteroids, and the new goods brought down to earth onboard Shuttles.
The Shuttles were supposed to be all-purpose space vehicles – carrying cargo and satellites into space, repairing malfunctioning satellites, helping to build space stations and then providing them with supplies AND people. The European Space Agency built Spacelab to expand the research capabilities onboard the Shuttles. At one time there was a launch facility at Vandenberg AFB in California so that a Shuttle could be launched into a Polar Orbit. The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual talked about the possibility of a shuttle being launched into high earth orbit and studying the Van Allen Belt and other missions.
These weren’t the day-dreamings of a school child – these were ideas put out by NASA and folks close to the space program.
Most of it never happened….
Admittedly, most of those ideas were pie-in-the-sky, money is no object, spectacular sounding wishes that sound great when pitched – but really weren’t practical. But the fact remains, the Shuttle Fleet and the principles that led to their creation were just the tip of the iceberg. There was a great deal of potential in the Shuttles that was never exploited, and the loss of Columbia essentially killed the Shuttle program.
I think that’s why I found Discovery’s arrival at the Udvar-Hazy Center so sad… Not that it was the end of an era – or even the end of a landmark in human space exploration. What I think I found the most upsetting was the unrecognized, and unexploited potential. The Shuttles could have and should have been so much more than what they ended up being. The loss of Challenger and ultimately Columbia brought about an exceedingly risk averse culture to a profession that at it’s very nature is nothing but risk. Some may argue that it wasn’t risk aversion – but more of a focus on safety, but to explore and exist in space will always carry a great deal of risk for those who make the trip. Instead of using the Shuttles to continue to push the boundaries – NASA reverted to the Shuttle’s default role of flying cargo truck.
As disappointing as the lost potential, is the reality that the Shuttle Fleet was retired without a replacement. NASA is forced to rely solely on other space agencies to get people and supplies to the International Space Station. NASA’s replacement launch system is still several years away – assuming that political pressures don’t kill it completely. There is a push to get private companies to develop methods to launch people and cargo into space – and there appears to be some progress on that front. But even still, should the US Government be dependent on a commercial entity to get them into space?
Since the Apollo missions, the US has been a leader in the exploration of space, and despite all the fanfare surrounding the final Shuttle mission and the transfer of the various Shuttles to museums around the nation – the fact remains. The US is relinquishing it’s leading role in space exploration, and is doing so not with a bang – but with a whimper…