ATLANTIS LANDS: THOUGHTS ON THE END OF AN ERAJuly 25, 2011
Today is an unusual blog, for I link no articles, do no research, refer to no one else's thoughts. But I feel compelled to write something about the final landing of the final space shuttle mission, that of Atlantis. It truly is the end of an era, the era of manned NASA space missions, and the end of the era of the albatross that has shackled (perhaps deliberately) the public American manned space program in low Earth orbit since the heady lunar days of Apollo. As NASA parks unmanned interplanetary probes with ion propulsion around asteroids, prepares to send nuclear powered rovers to Gale Crater on Mars, I wonder, incredulously, why for decades we stuck with this albatross and relic from 1970s planning for so long for our manned missions. The space shuttle never lived up to the promises we were given back then, and cost us the lives of highly trained astronauts not once, but on two occasions.
Worse, all the grand visions and planning that I remember so well as a boy growing up in the turbulent 1960s of colonies on the Moon and manned missions to Mars before the end of the last century fell by the wayside, as we played with Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs building the international space station by means of the shuttle albatross. All the benefits that resulted from the Apollo program - just think of the computer on your desktop for one implication - would have been magnified by those grander visions exponentially.
As the shuttle was preparing for retirement, however, we were told about the US Air Force's unmanned robotic shuttle-drone, about Gary McKinnon's hacking into NASA and defense department computers, and his insistence to this day that he saw the names of "ships" and "personnel" for a secret space program. We were told also of Ronal Reagan's own debriefing, something that may have slipped past the censors, that the USA had a personnel-carrying capacity in space of 300 persons, far beyond the carrying capacity of America's shuttle fleet at any time.
And all this is just the stuff we know about. If the adage holds true that what is classified is at least one, if not two or three, decades in advance of what is publicly revealed, then perhaps the albatross was retired, not because it had outlived its always questionable usefulness, but because the real manned goings on in space are of such a nature that they must remain deeply covert, for I can no more believe the USA would relinquish manned space flight any more than I can that Russia, China, or Europe would do so. Space is the strategic high ground; it is an inevitable magnet to the world powers' militaries, and it will remain so.
It remains for the public to be convinced that we need to remain in space publicly, for that, as so many others have also said, would pay big long term economic benefits to people here on terra firma. Look again at the technologies being utilized by NASA now in its unmanned probes, and extrapolate from them the possibilities for manned space flight, and you will probably reach the same conclusion that I do: there really is no excuse not to have manned missions, and interplanetary ones at that.
The question is: Why aren't we doing so(assuming, of course, that if there is a secret program, it is not already doing so)? The only conclusion I can come to is that any public programs must somehow have been warned off from doing so, by someone. The question is who, and why? That would open a Pandora's box of speculation, which I choose not to open here. Perhaps, as I blogged in an earlier article, the decision has been taken to surrender any public manned programs to commercial and private development, leaving the government's role strictly military.
Personally, I would hope that as the shuttle era ends, that we can have a new national debate about the role - and from my point of view, need - for a continued manned program. We have been on a thirty-plus years' diversion. It's time to start thinking of deep space once again, and of the necessary technologies to get us there.