Last Flight of the Space Shuttle
I saw a picture this morning of Discovery being flown to her final resting place in a museum. It was a sad picture, really, since it heralded the unquestioned end of our government funded manned space program. If ever there was any doubt about one last mission, this pretty much sealed the deal.
This is of interest to sci-fi people like myself because it marks a turning point in the journey into space. Since the beginning, it was the US and Russia racing each other to space. The two colossal powers, setting great piles of money on fire in the quest to own the next ‘first’, to be the ones with the claim to whatever they could grab next. It seemed like we’d soon be planting a flag on Mars and exploring further. Yes, it was motivated by national one-upsmanship, but there was progress, and everyone would, in the end, benefit from the advances made in that pursuit.
Then, things got quiet. We landed on the moon, orbited satellites, made space travel such a non-event that people forgot that, unless a disaster like Challenger or Columbia happened, flinging crazy little humans up into space and getting them back again was insanely dangerous.
And now, we have this: the USA with no organic means to get its’ own people into space, buying seats on Russian rockets. It seems like the government has given up on the idea of keeping our presence up in orbit, if not for some tangible goal then I would argue simply for national pride.
However, maybe it was time for a shift. We see how slow and bloated government can be; maybe having them run something as complex as a space program was an idea whose time has passed. I used to joke to my friends that if Burt Rutan was in charge of NASA, we’d have the starship Enterprise in orbit by now.
There are people in the private sector like Burt Rutan, Elon Musk, Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and more, with companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and Stratolaunch Systems, who are taking up the slack and innovating, something NASA hasn’t been allowed to do with the shuttle program.
Sad as it is to see an institution like NASA gutted, I do feel a sense of hope that these private companies, motivated by the ambition and drive that this country’s space program once possessed, will push the boundaries and take us to higher (literally) reaches.
So here’s to the new adventurers, the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers, who are now in the drivers seat of manned spaceflight. I think they’ll do quite alright, thank you very much.
Look at things also from this perspective: I want very much to buy a ticket into space someday. I think that’s a reality I might see, or at the very least, my kids. Do you think NASA would ever have reached that point?