And so it was that at 5:57AM local time today, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down, marking the conclusion of mission STS-135 and the Shuttle program’s thirty year run. As a child of the 90s, the Space Shuttles were the zeitgeist of space travel, constituting not only the national space discussion, but infiltrating pop culture in its various forms as well. Not rockets, not capsules, no men on the moon, they were space planes. It’s the end of an era, as they say and the foggy future of manned space exploration is, well, sad.
I remember in 1990, my dad had built an orbiter for me out of LEGOs. I thought it was the coolest thing. From an early age, between first grade classes about the Shuttle program, to the armada of science fiction I consumed at a young age, and NASA’s brimming popularity during the 80s, I was hip to what was happening in space exploration. There were four orbiters then: Endavour (which had not flown yet), Atlantis, Discovery, and Columbia. We’ve sent those Shuttles up and down many times since then, many on trips to build and maintain the International Space Station, but my imagination began to shift as NASA landed several rovers on Mars. By the time high school arrived, not helped with the arrival of films like Mission to Mars and Red Planet, I was hopeful we’d get a man on that rusty globe by 2030. So, it was during this time that the Shuttle program started to look old, mundane. Even the ISS was starting to become a bit of a white elephant: here were the tools we need to extend ourselves into space and we were using them, primarily, for not that. While the Challenger incident was before my time, the loss of Columbia to NASA’s bureaucratic hubris came while I was in school, grounding the entire fleet for several years. The Space Shuttle program is estimated to have cost $175 billion in total, at a cost of nearly $1.5 billion per launch, construction costs included.
In 2004, President Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration, which involved the creation of the Constellation Program, or CxP. The CxP was designed to bring about a new range of rocket lifters (the Ares series) and new transit vehicles that would’ve brought us back to the moon, allowed us to establish a lunar outpost and springboard further to Mars and beyond. It is inevitable that we need to expand our influence beyond our blue ball in the sea of darkness: a mission that will expand our empower the development of new technologies and allow our imaginations to expand and serve humanity even further. The CxP would’ve also allowed for a smaller stop gap in the US’s space-faring capabilities after the Shuttle was retired.
President Obama ordered an audit of the CxP and found that it was not going to be economically feasible, instead plotting out a new plan that involves subsidizing private rocketry (of a much smaller scale than the CxP called for) and a greater emphasis on extending the lifespan of the ISS. As a result, the United States has no space-ready option to send people into orbit. ISS crew have to be filtered through on Russian ships until American commercial counterparts have replaced them. With the knee-capping of the CxP, America no longer has a vision or a strive to go beyond our little dot in the universe.
As a conservative, I understand the role of government, but I cannot possibly believe that space exploration lead by the private sector will become anything more than a scattershot failure. And so, it’s a shame that as Atlantis is mothballed and sent off to its final resting place, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, America has also successful mothballed its ambition to venture into that final frontier, once the nation that ruled the skies.