In 1957 we were capable of putting the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit. In 1959 we managed the first lunar flyby and the first lunar landing, though it was not a soft landing. Then came 1961 and the first manned spaceflight. 1965 brought the first EVA. In 1966 we achieved the first soft landing on any body other than Earth and managed to put the first artificial satellite in orbit around any body other than Earth, the obvious target of both being the Moon. Then came 1968 and the first manned spaceflight to leave low Earth orbit, reach another body and achieve orbit around it, the target obviously also being the Moon.
Then, on July 20, 1969, at 8:17 PM GMT, the first humans landed on the Moon (yes, really). Now, 42 years, 13 hours and 40 minutes later, on July 21, 2011, at 9:57 AM GMT, the Space Shuttle program ended with a successful landing, leaving a huge void in its wake. And I’m not really sure what else is there to say, because nobody’ll make you understand what this all means and why’s it so wrong if you don’t already, though I stumbled upon one article that certainly gave it a good try…
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Space Shuttle shouldn’t have been retired. It’s been slightly over 30 years since the first launch, after all, so the design itself was badly outdated, especially for such terribly demanding applications. But the problem is that it’s not being replaced with anything, or certainly with nothing worth mentioning. The problem is that, for three decades, mankind had this vehicle capable of repeatedly carrying humans and large amounts of equipment and supplies into space and then returning them safely to the ground in a completely controlled manner and now we no longer have anything like it.
Yes, all the milestones I pointed out in the first part of this post were achieved before the age of the Space Shuttle, but that hardly means such a vehicle isn’t necessary for proper space exploration or that we’re not going backwards. You can start doing new things without reusable tools, in fact that’s often the case, but it’s very difficult, not to mention terribly wasteful, to keep doing them for long like this. A vehicle like the Space Shuttle may not be required to do something the first time, but it’s definitely required in order to turn the milestones and achievements into the sustainable routine required for proper exploration and development.
How far do you think we’ll get now that we’re back to splashing down somewhere and struggling to retrieve the crew after each manned mission? Or how far do you think we’ll get now that we’re back to separating the crew and the equipment to be used or deployed, assuming a mission requires both, into different modules? Basically, what chances do we have to go forward now that we went back three decades?
Not that any future plans could change the fact that we currently no longer have any such vehicle in any way, but whenever you hear about plans for any vehicle similar to the Shuttle you should also keep in mind that all such programs have so far been canceled, no other similar vehicles ever operating. That should put any current promises into the proper perspective as well, particularly when the current political, social and economic climate is perhaps more hostile than ever to research in general and space exploration in particular, don’t you think?
But what’s worse than canceled programs is this utterly idiotic idea of relying on the private sector for the future of space research and exploration. You only need to look at the medical sector to see what putting research into the hands of the private sector does! A private company, by definition, is only looking for profit and for what material benefits it can obtain as a result of any action, so it certainly can’t be trusted with taking the burden of such missions in any way, shape or form, because the purpose of space exploration, and perhaps the primary purpose of research in general, should be simply to gather knowledge.
As the author of that article I linked to in the first part of this post put it, “once you lose the desire to visit space simply because it is interesting and start going there because maybe, this time, we will come up with another useful silly putty, you lose the point”. Unfortunately, we have lost the point long ago, but there could perhaps be some slight chance of finding it again if we’d ensure the really dedicated scientists’ independence and offer them what they need to do what they do best. If, on the other hand, we add the private sector’s pressure on top of the political pressure that has always existed in this field, we’ll do nothing but take away any remaining chance of that ever happening.
Leave the private sector to deploy and maintain commercial satellites and perhaps, under very strict regulations and only if significant taxes will be applied and then used to fund space research and exploration efforts, also handle space tourism, but that’s where it ends. Or, all right, private companies could perhaps also be contracted to gather space junk, which is certainly something that needs to be done as soon as possible, and perhaps at the very most handle some minor maintenance work, but only if they agree to very quickly fix any damage caused and also pay enormous penalties in case they make the slightest mistake. The rest, as in the actual research and exploration, absolutely must be left to those who aren’t interested in what can be done or gathered, but only in what can be found, what can be learned.
The Space Shuttle was most likely mankind’s greatest technological achievement when the program started and there are likely few that could dare challenge it for that “title” even now. Sadly, after more than 30 years we’re not only unable to improve upon that design, but we’re not even capable to putting something even remotely similar in its place! What’s going on now dishonors us all, as do the current plans for the future. As a human, I’m shamed to no end.