Last Friday, I watched online as the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off, on what would be its last mission, and the last time one of the Shuttle fleet would leave this planet, after 30 years of service to the nation.
I’m not melancholy about the end of the shuttle fleet; after 30 years, I’d say the fleet has performed wonderfully, with only 2 catastrophic failures out of 132 missions… and considering the hazardous job they do, blasting into space hitched to a set of separate boosters, maintaining flight status and performing complex duties for days, then gliding into a fiery re-entry, the fact that there have been so few mission failures is impressive. Yes, the shuttles and their teams, in the air and on the ground, did their jobs well, and we should be proud of them.
I am, however, upset about the fact that we’ve always known the shuttles had a limited lifespan, and that we’d have to replace them in time. Yet, after years of studies, planning, designs and more designs, we have squandered our time and refused to fund the shuttle replacement program, even as we blew our nation’s money on oil wars and bank charity. NASA’s current “plan” to replace the shuttles encompasses two vehicle systems instead of one: A fully-automated heavy-load vehicle, designed to deliver shuttle-sized and larger payloads to space (needing more energy and bigger rockets to get them to orbit, they are the most hazardous systems to fly—but if they crash and burn, you’ll only lose property, not people); and a smaller, safer people transport system, looking like the SUV version of an Apollo capsule, but (hopefully) infinitely more advanced than the Apollo or shuttle systems.
The problem is, we’re not building these yet, either… and at this rate, there’s no telling when (or if) we will. And in the meantime, we’ll be going to space in the near future on Russian Soyuz rockets (a system older than our shuttles, and probably the system that convinced NASA to design a system updated from the original Apollo concept) and whatever heavy-lifting craft from whatever country will have us. And unfortunately, we can’t depend on those other countries to always be there for us; they have problems of their own, especially the Russians and their Soyuz program, and if they collapse, we’ll have no one else to rely on.
That’s no way to build a vital American system… and yes, I say vital, because we need access to space as a platform to study and better understand our Earth’s environment and history, and protect her future. (Yes, there are other reasons to go to space, but I see them as largely optional endeavors, as opposed to the absolute need to study Earth.) Farming out many of the duties involved in space access will only cause delays and higher costs in the long run, two things we can’t afford.
America led the rest of the world into regular activity in space, and has been a major player in studying Earth, the cosmos, and the human condition in space. We need our own flight system, so we don’t have to depend on shaky programs in troubled or unstable countries, and so we won’t have to play global politics with scientific research… that’s always been a bad combination, and it’s not getting any better.
Most importantly, we need to stop being lazy about our needs, and irresponsible about our spending. Just like any household with bills and credit issues, we need to be wise about how we spend our money now, so we don’t end up spending more in catch-up later; and the longer we wait, the larger that catch-up bill will be. America’s need for a new space transport system is only one area where we have fallen behind. We need to apply the same diligence to our energy infrastructure, our physical infrastructure, our transportation systems, our education systems and our industrial/agricultural systems, instead of continuing to pay into old systems (like the oil, coal, and old-tech auto industries) that are yielding a smaller and smaller return every day.
We need to take responsibility for securing our future. Let’s start with committing to our own future space transport system.