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Atlantis after STS-135 landing
With the landing last week of Atlantis on the final shuttle mission, an era much longer than shuttle program came to an end. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Wheels stop

The momentum of the first Space Age has finally been exhausted


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The first era of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts came to end at precisely 5:57:54 am Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Exactly 54 seconds after the wheels of its main landing gear made contact with the runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, the shuttle Atlantis came to a halt, an event known in shuttle lingo as “wheels stop”. Never again would a shuttle orbiter move under its own propulsion: from here on out the shuttles would be towed, trucked, and even flown atop their 747 carrier aircraft until they reach their final destinations, museums in Los Angeles, near Washington, and KSC itself.

For NASA, the question after Apollo became, “Now what?” There were bold plans for further exploration—bases on the Moon, missions to Mars—but the national appetite for them was lacking without the impetus of a race for global supremacy.

Claiming that the landing of Atlantis last week represented the end of a first age for the agency’s human spaceflight program may seem a little odd: surely, many would argue, it was at least a second age, after Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo? While the Space Shuttle represented a sharp technological discontinuity from those earlier programs—a shift from expendable rockets and capsules to an all-purpose reusable “space truck”—it benefitted from the broader programmatic and political momentum created by those earlier programs. Understanding this allows for a better appreciation of the agency’s current situation.

Human spaceflight activities started in the US at a torrid pace a half century ago, with America locked in a frantic space race with the Soviet Union to demonstrate superiority in space and, by extension, superiority on Earth. While it’s something of a myth that NASA had access to unlimited resources during this time—there were congressional concerns about NASA spending even in the early 1960s—the nation’s purse was open to a far greater degree than it has since then for human spaceflight, enabling a rapid series of advancements capped by Apollo 11’s successful landing on the Moon 42 years ago this month. For the space race, it was mission accomplished.

For NASA, the question became, “Now what?” There were bold plans for further exploration—bases on the Moon, missions to Mars—but the national appetite for them was lacking without the impetus of a race for global supremacy, and when NASA had to compete with other national priorities for resources. However, NASA’s human spaceflight efforts had, in effect, built up momentum: while the space infrastructure of Saturn 5 rockets and Apollo capsules were been tossed aside, there was considerable terrestrial infrastructure, in the form of facilities, workforce, and more—a whole industry had sprung up within a decade. Thus, there were very tangible reasons for continuing human spaceflight, to keep that industry in place in at least some form (if not in its glory during the peak of Apollo). There were also intangible reasons, as well: while the US had won the space race, the Cold War raged on; how would it look to the rest of the world if the US gave up even while the Soviet Union soldiered on in low Earth orbit? (See “Negative symbolism, or why America will continue to fly astronauts”, The Space Review, January 16, 2006.)

So that momentum built up in the 1960s was transferred to a new program, the Space Shuttle. An examination of the shuttle program is far beyond the scope of this essay: whole volumes have been devoted, and will be in the future, to its accomplishments and shortcomings. At its core was a noble goal: by reducing the cost of accessing space, it would free up money to be spent on doing things in space, be it satellites or space science or even, perhaps, building up the infrastructure to support renewed human exploration beyond LEO. While the Space Shuttle was a tremendous vehicle that accomplished many things, from launching and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope to assembling the International Space Station, it failed at that core goal of reducing the cost of getting into orbit. Maybe that was because the program was starved of funds during its development, forcing design compromises. Or, perhaps, it was simply too great of a technological giant leap.

With the decision in the aftermath of Columbia to retire the shuttle and seek a new direction for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit, NASA and the administration were like Cortez burning the boats. This time, there would be no going back to the Space Shuttle.

That momentum carried NASA and its shuttle program into the 1980s and ’90s, and also led to the space station program. But even then there were signs that the impetus provided by the original space race was starting to wane. There was no national agreement about what should come next after the shuttle. That was true from both a technical perspective—witness the parade of failed successors, from the National Aerospace Plane to the X-33—as well as a programmatic one: what was the next step for human spaceflight? Countless reports offered no shortage of options, including a return to the Moon and missions to Mars, but they failed to win broad support, as did President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative 20 years ago. The interest, and the willingness to fund, a new exploration initiative, be it a reboot of Apollo or something more ambitious, wasn’t there.

Had it not been for the Columbia accident in February 2003, we might still be flying the shuttle today: at the time of the accident there were studies underway to keep the shuttle flying to 2020 or even beyond, a recognition that there was no obvious successor vehicle in the wings to replace the shuttle, no overarching strategy for human spaceflight beyond operations of the ISS. That, though, would have only delayed the inevitable. Despite the Herculean efforts of the shuttle workforce, ultimately the shuttle was an imperfect machine operated by imperfect people: fly the shuttle long enough, and another accident was bound to happen.

In the past, when other vehicle or exploration initiatives failed, NASA could fall back to operating the shuttle. That may have worked against those initiatives in the past, eliminating any sense of urgency to develop those vehicles or carry out those plans. With the decision in the aftermath of Columbia to retire the shuttle (see “The decision to retire the Space Shuttle”, The Space Review, July 18, 2011) and seek a new direction for human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit, NASA and the George W. Bush Administration were like Cortez burning the boats. This time, there would be no going back to the Space Shuttle. It was the Vision for Space Exploration (aka the Vision), or nothing.

Except it wasn’t the Vision. Although one can debate (and many still do so) whether Constellation was simply not adequately funded by the White House and Congress, or if instead that implementation of the Vision had systemic flaws, it did not survive the change of administrations. It’s left us in the muddle we find ourselves in today, and this time without the fallback option of the shuttle. The momentum from the early space race that carried the shuttle program through the last few decades has finally been expended.

As for the goals being too long-term, keep this in mind: when President Obama announced in 2010 his goal of a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, that goal was one year less into the future than when President Bush announced in 2004 a goal of a human return to the Moon by 2020.

Some argue today that the problem with NASA’s human spaceflight program is the lack of a detailed plan, with destinations and deadlines, or that existing plans are too long term. For example, in an op-ed published Friday in POLITICO, former astronaut Walt Cunningham and Congressman Pete Olson (R-TX) rail against the administration’s human spaceflight efforts. “NASA’s plan for deep space exploration, requiring development of new heavy lift rockets and crew vehicles, leaves them without a specific destination and timetable,” they wrote. “Really, without a mission.”

Of course, there is a plan in place, with destinations and timetables, even if they’re not as specific or near-term as some would like. There are also plans for the infrastructure, including commercial crew transportation to LEO and a crewed spacecraft and heavy-lift launcher for missions beyond Earth, although the status of the congressionally-mandated launcher is still a little hazy (see “Heavy-lift limbo”, The Space Review, July 18, 2011). As for the goals being too long-term, keep this in mind: when President Obama announced in 2010 his goal of a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025, that goal was one year less into the future than when President Bush announced in 2004 a goal of a human return to the Moon by 2020.

No, the problem is not a lack of plans, or more specific destinations and timelines. We’ve had those in the past, without success. The problem is more fundamental. There remains a lack of a compelling rationale for a long-term, stable, government-run human spaceflight program. There’s no shortage of reasons—science, exploration, inspiration, national prestige—but neither individually nor in concert have they been sufficient to provide the agency with sufficient funding and stability to carry out any of its long-term visions. By contrast, the early NASA, and the nation in general, had a compelling rationale for its human spaceflight plans: an existential fear of failing in a race with the Soviets that had implications far beyond who could claim to be the first to set foot on the Moon. That was good enough to propel astronauts to the Moon and gave NASA enough momentum to continue its human spaceflight efforts long after the race was over.

There is, arguably, a very compelling long-term reason for human spaceflight: species survival (see “On survival, goals, and human space flight”, The Space Review, July 18, 2011). In many respects, this is little more than common sense: if we stay on Earth long enough, something will happen—be it a natural calamity like an asteroid impact or one whose roots are in humanity’s own actions—that will imperil our survival here. Yet it’s easy to see why this can be ignored, even laughed at, by the public: given all the near-term problems we face today, why worry about an unknown threat that may be hundreds, thousands, even millions of years in the future?

The shuttle’s end had become yesterday’s news before it had even become yesterday.

If that long-term reason isn’t sufficient, we need nearer-term reasons to support human spaceflight that support that long-term goal. Some, like former Augustine Committee member Jeff Greason, have argued that space settlement is that goal; what’s missing is the strategy to implement it (see “New strategies for exploration and settlement”, The Space Review, June 6, 2011). He also warns that now is the time to develop that strategy: in the current fiscal climate the nation may have limited patience with a human spaceflight program that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The end of the Space Shuttle program comes at a time when the nation is feeling a sense of unease and self-doubt (or, dare we say it, malaise) not experienced since the 1970s, thanks to the sluggish economy, budget deficits and the debt ceiling debate, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and more. The end of the shuttle and the resulting gap in human spaceflight—a feature that dates back to the original Vision for Space Exploration, something forgotten in much of the recent discussion—has added to that. But, beyond a series of aggrieved editorials and blog posts, there hasn’t been much public reaction (or outrage) to the shuttle’s end. Listening to a top-of-the-hour news recap on a Washington, DC radio station Thursday evening, a little more than 12 hours after Atlantis landed, I was surprised to find that the shuttle didn’t make the list of top stories. Instead, the news was dominated by the debt ceiling debate, the heat wave gripping much of the nation, and the NFL lockout. The shuttle’s end had become yesterday’s news before it had even become yesterday.

There is still plenty of hope for the future, in the official pronouncements of agency officials and other space advocates, who see a bright future ahead for NASA’s human spaceflight program. “You know, the Space Shuttle has changed the way we view the world and it’s changed the way we view our universe,” STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson said from the cockpit of Atlantis shortly after wheels stop. “There are a lot of emotions today, but one thing’s indisputable: America’s not going to stop exploring.” Perhaps. There is no guarantee, though, that such exploration will be in the near future, or involve humans. One thing is certain, though: whatever direction, if any, NASA’s human spaceflight programs take in the future, they will have to come up with new rationales to support them. They will no longer be able to tap the momentum of the agency’s past accomplishments, as they have in the past. That momentum was spent once and for all when Atlantis rolled to a stop on the runway last Thursday.


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