Poised for its last flight Friday, July 8 pending good weather, the Space Shuttle Atlantis begins a 12-day voyage to the International Space Station, ending NASA’s the Space Transportation System [STS] that launched Columbia’s maiden voyage April 12, 1981. While there’s much work to be done by 40-year-old Commander Chris Ferguson, a dark cloud looms over the U.S. manned space program. When Atlantis finishes its last flight July 20, the U.S. manned space program officially ends. Unlike NASA’s prior history with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the Space Shuttle has no replacement, officially grounding the U.S. manned space program. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 15, 1969, NASA planners were already in development on the Space Shuttle, the vehicle that was supposed to revolutionize manned space travel but instead ended U.S. manned space operations.
While liftoff is scheduled Friday for 11: 26 a.m. EDT at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center, NASA has no plans to announce the next generation space vehicle. Last year, NASA cancelled its Space Shuttle replacement called the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, handing manned space flight to Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, AKA SpaceX, whose unmanned Dragon Space Vehnicle was successfully launched by a Falcon 9 rocket Dec. 8, 2010. SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk, a former creator of PayPal and Tesla Motors, won a Commercial Resupply Services [CRS] $1.6 billion contract with NASA to build and manage the next space vehicle. Passing the baton to private space contractors, in effect, ends the U.S. national manned space program, begun when the upstart Soviet Union launched Spunik 1 Oct. 4, 1957.
Spunik’s launch blindsided U.S. officials, realizing the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. About a year-and-a-half later, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commissioned with the task of leading the U.S. into space exploration. When Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space April 12, 1961 becoming the first man into space and the first to orbit the earth, establishing Soviet space supremacy. Less than a month later, astronaut Alan Shepard was blasted into space May 5, 1961 without orbiting the globe. “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard . . . ” President John F. Kennedy told an audience at Rice University Sept. 12, 1962, telling the nation the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
When Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon, he was talking about a committed government-led national effort. When Atlantis completes its final re-supply mission to the International Space Station July 20, NASA will no longer have a manned space vehicle to carry the next generation of astronauts or equipment into space. “Let’s light this shuttle one more time Mike and witness this nation at its best,” said Atlantis Flight Commander Chris Ferguson, thanking Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach and his team at Mission Control. Passing NASA’s responsibility to the private sector robs a generation of young Americans of the national pride associated with the U.S. Space Program. Regardless of Washington’s budget-slashing mood, pulling the leadership role from underneath NASA upends the real value of the U.S. Space Program: Nationalistic pride, inspiration and goals. Great national goals, like the Space Program, keep the country on the same page.
President Barack Obama’s April 15, 2010 speech on the future of the U.S. Space Program acknowledged the end of Space Shuttle, offering a murky future view of U.S. space travel. While he proposed landing on a distant asteroid, he made no mention of returning to the moon. Meanwhile Russian and Chinese space operations move forward. When the Shuttle Mission ends July 20, only the Russians will have their Soyuz spaceship available for travel to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Dragon spaceship won’t be ready for manned flight for at least three years. Space innovators like Sir. William Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines, have no plans for travel to and from the ISS. NASA’s failure to think ahead to the end of the Space Shuttle displays the current lack of commitment to U.S. manned spaceflight. White House and Congressional officials need to recommit themselves to a rigorous national Space Program.
When the Chinese Shenzhou spaceship rocketed into orbit with three crew Sept. 25, 2008, it sent shockwaves through NASA, realizing the newer, improved spacecraft surpassed the obsolete Space Shuttle by leaps and bounds. Chinese officials in 2011 plan to re-supply its Tiangong orbiting laboratory, then move quickly to go to the moon. While the Russians have no immediate plans to follow suit, the European Space Agency also plans to follow the Chinese back to the moon. Unless SpaceX or its East Coast counterpart Orbital Sciences works feverishly to return to the moon, it’s conceivable the U.S. will be left in the dust. “The Shuttle era really was an effort to do a whole new kind of spaceflight,” said Smithsonian space curator Valerie Neal. Too big, heavy and now obsolete, the Space Shuttle miscalculated the future need of a more versatile, mobile and aerodynamic spacecraft.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.