Sustaining momentum after the final wheels stop
by Jeff Foust
|“It finally brings finality to our shuttle program,” KSC director Bob Cabana said in a media briefing the day before Atlantis was moved.|
But the height of the media attention last week—and also the denouement of the shuttle program itself—came on Friday, when Atlantis made the day-long journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to the center’s Visitor Complex. Towed like Endeavour, but without the challenges of trying to navigate an urban grid, the transfer took on at times the appearance of a parade, complete with a high school marching band, flag-waving crowds, and, at the end of the day, fireworks.
The transfer also provided, at last, a sense of closure for the shuttle program, the end of a long goodbye that started more than eight and a half years ago, when President George W. Bush announced in January 2004 that the shuttle would be retired upon completion of the ISS. “It finally brings finality to our shuttle program,” KSC director Bob Cabana said in a media briefing the day before Atlantis was moved.
Closure, of course, has been difficult for many who either were involved with the shuttle or otherwise were fans of the program, evidenced in part by the maudlin prose written about its retirement and exacerbated by a perceived uncertainty about the future. With the last orbiter now installed in a museum, though, even the staunchest advocates of the shuttle program must now admit that, for better or for worse, its time has passed.
That, however, poses a new challenge for NASA. There remains, long after Atlantis’s final flight, and long after the political compromises that resulted in a new path for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts after Constellation proved unacceptable, a public perception that there is no future for human spaceflight with the retirement of the shuttle. This misperception could prove dangerous to NASA in an era of fiscal constraint, is not downright austerity.
Some of those opinions showed up back in September, when Endeavour arrived in Los Angeles after a cross-country ferry flight that provided plenty of photo opportunities, from Florida to Houston to San Francisco to, finally, L.A. (see “Final flight”, The Space Review, October 1, 2012.) “It was awesome. It was also, for NASA, an incredible PR coup, and scientific nationalism at its best,” wrote Marc Ambinder, a columnist for The Week magazine, shortly after Endeavour arrived in L.A.
But Ambinder, a veteran national security and politics correspondent, was apparently unaware of NASA’s post-shuttle plans. “For the first time in NASA history, there is no follow-up to the Shuttle program,” he claimed, apparently unaware of the Space Launch System launch vehicle, Orion spacecraft, or the agency’s commercial crew initiatives. “It was supposed to be called Constellation, and it envisioned another moon landing by 2020. The current administration killed it.”
Similarly, in an essay published by The Atlantic on its website in September, Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost was pessimistic about the future. “All the exciting parts of exploring the solar system have been leeched out,” Bogost, a self-described “Space Shuttle child,” wrote upon reflection of Endeavour’s arrival in Los Angeles. “What’s left is the drudgery of the everyday and the dreams of the rich.”
|“A lot of folks think that since the shuttle is gone, human spaceflight is dead. It is far from dead,” said NASA’s Bill Hill.|
That opinion seems an odd one to take, particularly given the strong public interest in Curiosity’s arrival on and exploration of Mars, but Bogost seems resigned to a future where space is “alive and well, for the wealthy at least”; a future of ample commercial space activity but nothing of sufficient boldness to him. “Today, a kid who says ‘I want to be an astronaut’ is really just saying ‘I want to be rich.’ Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
Overcoming that perception—that there’s no future for human spaceflight at NASA after the shuttle, even a “going out of business” mindset—is a major challenge facing the space agency today. NASA tried to combat it a little on Friday, stopping Atlantis’s procession for several hours in “Exploration Park,” a planned office park just outside the KSC gates, where the orbiter was joined by models of several future vehicles, from Orion to commercial crew systems to XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital spaceplane; the past meeting multiple visions of the future.
“We have not been standing still for the last year,” Cabana said. “We have been focused on the future for more than a year.” He mentioned the various efforts underway, from SLS and Orion to the commercial crew programs to other work underway at KSC to turn it into a “multiuser spaceport of the future” supporting both government and commercial systems.
“A lot of folks think that since the shuttle is gone, human spaceflight is dead. It is far from dead,” said Bill Hill, assistant deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, at the same briefing with Cabana. “We’re alive and kicking.”
Getting that message across has been a challenge, though, as the shuttle orbiters were ferried to their retirement homes. When Discovery arrived at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in April, NASA administrator Charles Bolden argued at the time that celebrating the retirement of the shuttle was not a distraction from selling the public on NASA’s post-shuttle future. “In order to move on to another phase of life, you’ve got to get the other part done, and celebrate it, and move on,” he said then, even as some commentators complained about what they saw as a diminished future for America in space (see “A shuttle’s transfer in an agency’s era of transition”, The Space Review, April 23, 2012).
|Now it’s up to NASA and its advocates to convince the public in general, and decisionmakers in Washington in particular, that there is a future for human spaceflight: if not the one the space agency has embarked upon, then some other.|
Perhaps, though, this period of pomp and circumstance—the ceremonies associated, and understandably so, with the retirement of a venerable series of spacecraft—was a distraction from the agency’s future. If so, that distraction should now be fading. There will still be ceremonies attached to the orbiters in the months and years to come: Atlantis’s new home at the KSC Visitor Complex will open next summer, while the California Science Center has plans for a permanent building for Endeavour, displaying the shuttle vertically as if on the pad for launch. And, perhaps, last week’s hurricane will provide new impetus for a more permanent, and robust, home for Enterprise.
However, other than minor moves to accommodate those permanent facilities in California and New York, the shuttle program has, once and for all, achieved its final “wheels stop”, the final motions of vehicles that racked up billions of kilometers in low Earth orbit. They are now firmly part of the past, with new missions to educate and inspire those who travel to see them. Now it’s up to NASA and its advocates to convince the public in general, and decisionmakers in Washington in particular, that there is a future for human spaceflight: if not the one the space agency has embarked upon, then some other.