Observers decrying the end of space shuttle flights, presaged in the Bush administration's announcement that no new orbiters will be ordered, should look at the bigger picture. First, barring an amazing series of catastrophes, today's four-orbiter shuttle fleet will be flying well into the next century. Not bad for a vehicle based on technology already 30 years old. Shuttles will clearly never achieve the flight schedule NASA planners envisioned when the world's first re-usable space plane roared off Cape Canaveral 10 years ago, but shuttles still have an impressive record, including the world's only in-orbit satellite repairs.
Attention should now be focused on the technological advances produced by America's long experience in space, and on others which could be harnessed to boost mankind's reach beyond the grasping force of gravity. New structural materials, new understanding of atmospheric effects, new electronics, even new methods of organizing space efforts have come to the fore.
Wide uses of satellites for communications and remote sensing have become commonplace, affecting even the way space operations are managed. The prospective National Aerospace Plane and the plans for new unmanned launch systems should benefit from these discoveries in ways the shuttle fleet could not. A new orbital maneuvering vehicle, discussed but never built, will surely be needed to support a manned space station, should that actually get off the ground.