Hoping Forward At The End Of The Shuttle Era

Article written: 22 Jul , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — The last space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended with the landing of the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility at 5:57 a.m. EDT. The air was thick with both humidity and mosquitoes. It was also a day thick with loss. The United States, for the foreseeable future, has lost the ability to launch massive payloads, such as the International Space Station’s Kibo module, into orbit. Lost the capabilities that a manned spacecraft with a robot manipulator system or RMS affords. Lost the ability to chase down wayward satellites, repair them on-orbit or return them to Earth for more intensive work. Lost, at least for the time being, its leadership position in terms of space flight – that position now belongs to Russia with its human-rated Soyuz Spacecraft and unmanned Progress Cargo vessels.

NASA is working to put a positive spin on this new era. The space agency hopes that small, commercial space firms will provide the nation with the capacity to send men and material to orbit as it works to travel beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) once again. Only time will tell how successful this direction will be, but there are positive signs that NASA might be on the right path. Following the space program for decades – you learn to hedge your bets. Today’s SpaceX is tomorrow’s Constellation Program.

After 30 years, the shuttle program came to a close Thursday July 21, 2011 at 5:58 a.m. EDT. Photo Credit: NASA

Twin sonic booms shake me out of my revelry as the shuttle announces its return home. Then, a couple minutes later, there is the roar of the approaching orbiter. This sound comes not from shuttle, but rather from the sound of air being forcibly moved out of the shuttle’s path. I had set up two mini-camcorders to capture the landing, but had decided not to take any pictures. I took a moment, for myself, to watch as the shuttle roared past and landed.

There were a number of events held later in the day to commemorate the occasion. It struck me as odd that folks, some of whom would be in the unemployment line the following day, were celebrating. I decided to skip these events – I’ll celebrate when this nation regains the ability to launch astronauts into LEO. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden worked to reassure everyone that all was well, given that he mistakenly said that the crew of STS-134 returned today – his words were not that reassuring.

This image was taken from the International Space Station as shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

With luck, when the U.S. does return to space again, it will do so on a multitude of different craft, with a multitude of different abilities – and hopefully launch vehicles. If these spacecraft are as different from one another as Boeing’s CST-100 is from Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser – that will be a very good thing – it will mean that many of the capabilities lost today will be replaced, albeit on completely separate vehicles.

That said, we are now entering an undiscovered country, one that NASA has never delved into before. Near the end of Apollo, the shuttle program was approved. With the end of the shuttle program here – NASA has no established human space flight program, it has initiatives, but no umbrella program, no clear path. That said, there are some potentially amazing things on the horizon – but they exist primarily on paper or on PowerPoint. Until they are fleshed out, until they fulfill their promises – today was a day of loss. Like the shuttle program, today was a mixed bag. One filled with hope for what might come, but uncertainty with what the future holds.

These are my personal reflections on the end of the shuttle program. They do not represent the opinions of Universe Today. These thoughts come from following and covering the space program for the last two decades and are not in favor of any one group’s position. I do not work to tell people things I think they want to hear – but what I feel they need to hear. I appreciate and welcome a mature debate with respect given by all sides for everyone’s point of view.


38 Responses

  1. Hew Nyacinth says

    Every cloud has a silver lining…. don’t worry =)

  2. Anonymous says

    What an utter and complete load. Your “undiscovered country” was our 1975-1981 span, when the Shuttle was severely delayed and, at at least one point, up for cancellation.

    It is, indeed a day thick with loss- we just lost a massive money pit, which has been holding back actual exploration for twenty years or so. After the ’70s, NASA’s Shuttle-only launch policy of the ’80s was the primary reason that led to a “dark age” of solar system missions, broken only when Goldin finally moved probes to Delta II. As for Earth orbit, Ariane quite readily demonstrated that Shuttle launch is a good way to blow money and schedule. ALL proposals for Shuttle follow-on launchers (starting almost immediately in the mid-’80s) drastically simplified systems and operations, and moved cargo and people to separate missions. In other words, people in the know soon recognized that we needed anti-Shuttles. Even the Soviets only built Buran due to the pressures of political competition- their actual scientists wanted to fly something smaller, more like HL-20/DreamChaser… just like NASA’s more-rational scientists. EELV was specifically structured to produce Ariane-like results, NOT Shuttle-like.

    We lost a boondoggle. Lost a quagmire. Lost, for the time being, a programmatic liability.

    • Anonymous says

      Cost of the entire shuttle program since inception $192 billion
      Cost of the Iraq & Afghanistan wars since 2001 $1.2 trillion
      Look on 5missions_and_counting’s face when he finally understands the principal of comparative value – priceless

    • Anonymous says

      Cost of the entire shuttle program since inception $192 billion
      Cost of the Iraq & Afghanistan wars since 2001 $1.2 trillion
      Look on 5missions_and_counting’s face when he finally understands the principal of comparative value – priceless

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        But you could append that to any comment here; and it doesn’t even touch the specific content of 5missions_and_counting comment.

        Also, comparison of sunk cost is the exact opposite of comparison of value. You want ROI for the latter. According to NASA figures space investment seems to have better ROI (~30 – 50 %, IIRC?) than the military industrial sector (the usual ~ 20 %?).

        Comparing cost is iffy in another sense. It is based in “false choice”, and even if you want to compare relatives US wouldn’t go in bankruptcy increasing space investment.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        [orphan]

      • Anonymous says

        In the 17th century an ounce of gold would buy you a week’s worth of lodging, food and transportation. In our modern world today the rule about still holds. Through history nations have on average devoted about 25% of their economy to the making of weapons, billeting soldiers, building and sailing warships and so forth. It holds today with the US, which is for now the main military power in the world. 25% also represents the unfortunate fact that the single largest coordinated activity humans engage in is the killing of humans in large numbers. It is surpassed in its size historically by agriculture or production, but those activities do not usually operate on quite the same coordinated level. There is little reason to suspect this trend and its proportion will change in the near future.

        LC

      • Kevin Parker says

        I’m not sure where you get the 25%. Even in the modern US, the military budget is less than 5% of GDP. In the rest of the world, it’s far less than that.

      • Anonymous says

        There are a lot of hidden costs. The big one is servicing the debt. Also factor in other related and paramilitary activities as well, which goes from the intelligence community to the FBI the DEA and DHS and … , and you get a pretty big figure. Don’t forget the Veterans admin as weill.

        LC

      • Anonymous says

        Seriously? Through history much of the “economy” was local, personal, and off the books. Subsistence farming alone drastically “surpassed in its size,” even before cottage industry. Your gold comparison is thus somewhat tautological- that would be “25% of trade” in a pre-globalized world, not 25% of activity.

      • Anonymous says

        I am well aware of the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as that of a Shuttle flight- more expensive than the craft in the payload bay in most cases. The DoD was right to pull its hardware out of Shuttle launches, understanding that the comparative value of Titan III/IV, Atlas II/III, and Delta II is far more than the Shuttle. This is even before you consider schedule delays, restrictions on ground ops, payload contention, and other logistics, as well as competition and second-sourcing of critical services and infrastructure. Even NASA itself finally got the full comparison, and reversed its Shuttle-only launch policy by the mid-’90s.

        The question is, do YOU understand the true logistical and programmatic values of Ariane, Pegasus, Minotaur, EELV, etc.?

    • The use of the word “load” shows that you either haven’t read or ignored the comment guidelines for this site.

      The article is not a statement that we should continue flying shuttle, but that its successor should already be ready to fly (and the Dream Chaser made by Sierra Nevada is even mentioned). One wonders if you bothered to read everything before heading off on your little diatribe. My adivce is gain the capability to communicate without insulting others before posting again. Also, read the entire article – not just the first paragraph.

      • Anonymous says

        I had read the entire article, even though your citation of a verbal “-134” instead of “-135” as a citation for industrial policy didn’t give me confidence. At no point did I accuse you of wanting to continue flying shuttle- did you read everything of MINE?

        My point was (and is) that we are best rid of STS, as it raised the cost of space, not lowered it as had been claimed during its ’70s development. The per-flight costs were already apparent by Challenger, let alone Galileo, and yet we kept going for 25 more years. 25 too long in my accounting. I will feel no nostalgia, only relief.

  3. Anonymous says

    So whats-up with the promised billions of dollars by Obama for NASA?

  4. Anonymous says

    I think in Jason’s post the word spin is the most operative. I think we entering a nadir for this sort of activity, and I question whether it is coming back. The only really positive development I see is the space-X and the Falcon rocket. The Bigelow space hotel idea and the Virgin Galactic stuff are nonsense. The Falcon rocket could become a pretty decent work horse for putting instruments and (if needed) manned spacecraft in space.

    However, currently there are no policy directions in the post-shuttle period, manned space flight is tied to the Russian program, and space science is facing a cliff-off here by the end of this decade. Further, in case anyone has noticed these big science programs have been largely taken over by the Europeans, and the US is pretty much bowing out.

    It also has to be considered that the economy of this nation is likely to tumble hard pretty soon. The developments over the debt ceiling indicate that a bad double dip on the recession is coming soon, which we might just want to call a depression. The funding for these programs is likely to be strained even further. The future of Space-X will largely depend upon federal contracts as well.

    The world has gone from a bipolar balance of power 1945-1991 to a unipolar power structure 1991-2011, and we are probably seeing a transition away from that, where the emergent superpower is China. The United States appears to be receding into a conservative back-water (going back to the good ole days, gimmee that ole tyme religion and … etc) and where this nation is boxing itself into a enfeebled situation. This nation was called the “can do” nation with that “Yankee ingenuity,” and now we are becoming the “can’t do” nation. This is how nations and civilizations decline.

    LC

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      I really like the content here, good analysis, except that part of “Bigelow space hotel idea and the Virgin Galactic stuff are nonsense”. They do make sense as commercial endeavors, and they are part of space exploitation.

      Even more so Bigelow’s space housing, as it can be incorporated in pretty much anything else out there.

      • Member
        IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

        They do make sense as commercial endeavors, and they are part of space exploitation.

        The terms “commercial endeavors” and “exploitation” are indeed correct – it’s orbiting knocking shops for the rich that they have in mind!

      • Anonymous says

        You say that as if it’s a bad thing…

        Not everyone who provides a high-end service or product is necessarily themselves wealthy (does the person on a luxury car assembly line make more than the one building sub-compacts?) IF nothing else, they’ll out-compete current Russian prices to ISS.

        And both now, and for the near-to-medium future, the operating costs will be such that to make a profit one can *only* sell to the well-to-do. As with many other technologies, experience and economies of scale will make it ‘cheaper,’ but still out of reach of you and me, for some time. And that’s okay. Without rich early adopters proving there’s a market, there’s little hope that it ever would.

        I’ve never understood the feeling among some that if something isn’t available on the bargain shelf of Walmart the first day it’s introduced, that there’s something ‘wrong’ or ‘unfair’ about it. Some things will always be more expensive to do or to buy, than others. By the time travel to LEO becomes ‘dirt-cheap,’ vacationing on Mars will then be the new adventure for ‘the rich.’ (and the exploration frontier might be out around Jupiter)

        At least for another 10 years…

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Don’t you mean “honey moon suites”?

      • Anonymous says

        And though Robert Bigelow himself made his money in hotels, that’s not the primary market he sees for his products, rather they will be mostly research and development platforms for entities (including other nations) who want to do things in LEO, but neither have, not want to pursue their own space launch/space station capability.

        Agreements are already in the works between Bigelow and Boeing (who has always sold large commercial aircraft to those unable/uninterested in developing their own) to provide orbital transportation for those users, via their CST-100 capsule and Atlas V. (though with standard docking connections, other CCDev spacecraft could be carriers as well) The United Arab Emirates may be the first such customer.

        And anyone who *does* hope to provide dedicated module volume for space tourism, would still likely be a single module of a larger complex, just as one may lease commercial space in one structure on Earth, sharing its basic operational costs. (In ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ the Hilton Hotel was not the only entity operating aboard the large Space Station 5.)

        Bigelow has made clear his intent to eventually use his technology for Lunar shelters as well.

      • Anonymous says

        And though Robert Bigelow himself made his money in hotels, that’s not the primary market he sees for his products, rather they will be mostly research and development platforms for entities (including other nations) who want to do things in LEO, but neither have, not want to pursue their own space launch/space station capability.

        Agreements are already in the works between Bigelow and Boeing (who has always sold large commercial aircraft to those unable/uninterested in developing their own) to provide orbital transportation for those users, via their CST-100 capsule and Atlas V. (though with standard docking connections, other CCDev spacecraft could be carriers as well) The United Arab Emirates may be the first such customer.

        And anyone who *does* hope to provide dedicated module volume for space tourism, would still likely be a single module of a larger complex, just as one may lease commercial space in one structure on Earth, sharing its basic operational costs. (In ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ the Hilton Hotel was not the only entity operating aboard the large Space Station 5.)

        Bigelow has made clear his intent to eventually use his technology for Lunar shelters as well.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      [I broke the page script.]

      I really like the content here, good analysis, except that part of “Bigelow space hotel idea and the Virgin Galactic stuff are nonsense”. They do make sense as commercial endeavors, and they are part of space exploitation.

      Even more so Bigelow’s space housing, as it can be incorporated in pretty much anything else out there.

    • Member
  5. Torbjörn Larsson says

    I am sorry, but I don’t understand how we can debate maturely around such an immature point of view. My immediate reaction hankers back to the early days of the net before the net was even born (huh?), and how people immaturely would reply to loss: “oh, someone lost his toys!”

    [Today we could even tease with “her toys”. Progress! But I digress.]

    So the point that we have gained a robust economical program has already been made.

    Remains to add that despite being a money pit, space is currently in better shape than at any time before; with ISS manned presence for years to come, lots of interplanetary missions and cosmological observatories.

    ISS is a good target for the LEO work that opens up the commercial sector and supports the still early days of space tourism. Another gain from removing the compromised chimera from the show. Every death of a project is the birth of opportunity, “can do” as lcrowell nicely puts it.

    See? It becomes a “nah ah” argument on loss vs gain.

    Science and technology is based on process. This is part of a good process. It can be better, natch.
    —————-
    More reflections: The nationalist thing is not my cup of tea, I abhor that together with bilateralism in as much as it stops better general agreements. It works, but there are better ways at times. Nationalism in particular has as bad track record as other unsound ideologies, a source of war et cetera. It stopped having a reasonable rational as soon as colonialism died.

    But I note that in terms of resources, access to space and current infrastructure US must be considered to be the leader, and all that capital and current money flow can’t be erased easily. For future plans I would say US and China places even from their respective positions.

    [I agree with lcrowell that US may loose its science edge. But that has been long coming and is a societal thing, not exclusively space science. Economy, SSC vs LHC (which in line with above I see as an otherwise good thing), brain drain, academic record, fundamentalism, … a long list.]

    • Kevin Parker says

      I can’t say I see the great shape of space exploration. Once the US went to the Moon, now we can’t even get to orbit. We have one aging space telescope and a pending one that’s on the chopping block. There’s a flagship mission orbiting Saturn right now, but it’s questionable whether there’s even going to be another mission of the same caliber in the near future. There are a bunch of little missions, but few grand ones, and all of those have issues.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        To take my argument further, we wouldn’t expect a great shape after the STS money pit.

    • Anonymous says

      Well said, Torbjörn Larsson.

      Space needs to go international (like the International Space Station, duh!). I think, time has gone where one nation could afford all the costs of such missions, at least if it’s dedicated to be more than an Apollo-like boot and flag mission.
      As a small hope, it could also lead to a more peaceful way down on the surface of this planet (but as far as I know humans and its history, this hope could be in vain!).

    • Anonymous says

      Well said, Torbjörn Larsson.

      Space needs to go international (like the International Space Station, duh!). I think, time has gone where one nation could afford all the costs of such missions, at least if it’s dedicated to be more than an Apollo-like boot and flag mission.
      As a small hope, it could also lead to a more peaceful way down on the surface of this planet (but as far as I know humans and its history, this hope could be in vain!).

    • Torbjorn: It appears you view anyone with the audacity to disagree with your personal opinion as immature. One of the aspects of maturity – is listening to others’ point of view without calling names (immature). I’ve looked at all sides of this issue, the emerging private sector, international concerns, NASA and stated within that there is great potential as well as uncertainty. Given that a multitude of nations used shuttle, Japan, Canada, Europe and others – this is an international concern – not the national one you site.

      Take a look at the Soyuz spacecraft side by side with the shuttle (in scale). The Soyuz can fit in the shuttle’s payload bay and no vehicle can replace the capabilities lost Thursday. That is the primary gist of the article.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        If you take that as the only comment I ever made, so it would appear. However, if you track my comments through the years, you would soon see I never say so on disagreements.

        In fact, I can’t remember I have ever said so, or at least not recently. It just strikes me as immature to lament loss in a constructive process as it if was of significance (or perhaps sign of a destructive process now when I think about it). Certainly there are other concerns here, I am sorry for not making the place of my immediate reaction clearer among the larger picture (of yours and mine concerns).

        I am not sorry for saying so however, since your own portrait of me was… well. Another point of “nah ah”.

        Agreed on the space content, no vehicle can replace those capabilities, and a good point on mutual loss. The “national one you site” is a low blow I think, when you were discussing from the perspective of “US return to space”.

        Conversely no one longer asked for those capabilities in the short term, at least at that unaffordable prize. The shelving was done with that in mind (ISS finished).

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