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NASA is moving on. Finally.

A few days ago I had a nice discussion in a commenting thread on Wired, in response to an article about how uncertain the future of space flight is, now that the Space Shuttles are being mothballed.

When I was little, in the early eighties of the last century, I remember being told that the newly developed Shuttles would be the next big step in space flight technology. While previous rockets were disposable craft, the Shuttles were reusable. They could be launched over and over again with little effort. A whole fleet of these magnificent machines was going to be built and access to space would become cheaper. Getting into space was going to be routine. The James Bond movie Moonraker, from that time, depicts these ambitions when it shows us five shuttles being launched simultaneously from one location, after which they travel to a space station in high orbit.

Five shuttles docked at a space station
Five shuttles docked at a space station

Obviously, it didn’t happen this way. NASA built only a handful of Shuttles and they did not live up to their promises at all. They were clumsy vehicles, none of them able to reach a decent orbit. At the same time, they were immensely costly, which left too few resources for other programs. That situation seems to be coming to an end now, finally.

Still, many Americans are very sad to see them being phased out. I can understand an emotional response. After all, they look pretty cool and nobody else has anything but rockets. Better yet, the Russian Shuttle program could be seen as failed1 But when I think of what NASA should be proud of, it is not the Shuttle. It’s the Mars rovers and all those space probes, buzzing throughout the solar system, doing fabulous science. Even the Apollo-program wasn’t more than a show, albeit a spectacular one, but it did prevent NASA from doing more useful things.

Today, organizations are starting to launch craft into orbit to make a profit, and NASA is stopping with spending money on costly ineffective programs like Apollo or the Shuttles. In other words, rockets are launched for the right reasons. I can only conclude that these times are a lot less uncertain for space flight than in the five decades behind us.

As for the use of humans in space: humans should go into space for useful work that machines can’t do. Otherwise it will never be anything but a useless show, and never be sustainable.

  1. Though it didn’t: Gorbachev cancelled it before it ruined the Russian space program. ↩︎

Categorised as: politics


One Comment

  1. nobody says:

    On one thing you’re wrong: in Moonraker there were 6 shuttles, not 5.