Goodbye, Space Shuttle: Now the Space Race Can Really Begin

21 Jul

NASA’s 135th space shuttle flight ended this morning when Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, marking the close of a 30-year run for NASA’s ambitious, controversial and troubled orbital vehicle.

America’s space programs will continue, but without their flagship space plane — or any manned vehicle, for now. Over the next few years at least, U.S. astronauts will hitch rides to the International Space Station in Russian capsules. Meanwhile, purely robotic systems will take over other space duties.

Listening to some critics, you’d think America had just retreated from space, forever. “We’re basically decimating the NASA human spaceflight program,” former astronaut Jerry Ross told Reuters. “The only thing we’re going to have left in town is the station and it’s a totally different animal from the shuttle.”

Today many observers consider the Shuttle the ultimate expression of American technological prowess, and see its demise as a signal of America’s decline. In one sense, they’re right: With its huge size, distinctive shape and fiery launches, the shuttle has always been an impressive symbol. But as a practical space vehicle, it has long been an overpriced, dangerous compromise.

There’s a reason the Soviets canceled their space shuttle, and that the Chinese have never attempted one. Even without their own shuttles, both nations are now nipping at America’s heels in space. Russia has increasingly reliable rockets and capsules; China began manned spaceflights back in 2003 and is mulling a space station and a moon mission. Both countries are working hard to expand their satellite fleets, though they remain far behind the United States with its roughly 400 spacecraft.

In truth, the shuttle’s retirement could actually make the U.S. space program stronger, by finally allowing the shuttle’s two users — NASA and the Pentagon — to go their separate ways in space, each adopting space vehicles best suited to their respective missions.

“When I hear people say, or listen to media reports, that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human space flight, I have to say … these folks must be living on another planet,” NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said in a July 1 speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

For NASA, future manned missions will ride in upgraded 1960s-style manned capsules: first Russian models, then potentially American-built ones. Missions that don’t require a human passenger will fall to rockets of various sizes. The military will use many of the same rockets, and could also expand its brand-new fleet of small, robotic space planes.

Together, these vehicles will make space flight cheaper, safer and more flexible than was ever possible with the shuttle.


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