The shuttle's final flight

Our view: The lofty goals that inspired the shuttle program have been put on hold for the moment, but space still beckons as the final frontier

July 20, 2011

The scheduled touchdown of the space shuttle Atlantis Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida marks the end of a 30-year era in the U.S. manned spaceflight program. The space shuttle Columbia first flew in 1981, and since then the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has completed 135 missions aboard the delta-winged space planes, which have carried into orbit everything from classified military satellites to the Hubble Space Telescope and components for the International Space Station. After NASA technicians remove its engines and spruce it up inside and out, Atlantis will go on display alongside the three remaining shuttles in well deserved retirement at museums around the country.

But unlike the retirement of earlier vehicles designed for carrying humans beyond the Earth, the end of the space shuttle program will not be followed by the appearance of an even more ambitious and capable spacecraft — at least not right away. For the first time in the history of the space program, the United States is ending one manned space flight program without having another one ready to replace it.

After the Mercury program launched Alan B. Shepard on the sub-orbital flight that made him the first American in space in 1961, the Gemini program saw the first space walk by an astronaut in 1965 and the Apollo program culminated in the first landing on the moon in 1969. The shuttle was an Apollo follow-on designed to be the nation's first reusable spacecraft, and it was supposed to make a trip into orbit nearly as routine as a flight from New York to London.

Though it never achieved that goal — by the end of the program the average cost of a launch had ballooned from an initial estimate of $7 million to nearly $1.5 billion — it did keep alive the grand dream of a return to the moon and an eventual landing on Mars that had inspired America's enthusiasm for the space program from its earliest days.

Those lofty aspirations have been put on hold for the moment by budgetary constraints and a seeming lack of direction about what comes next. For the next few years, at least, NASA may be obliged to rely on Russian rockets or on the infant American commercial space industry to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

But this shouldn't be cause for too much despair. NASA can still inspire the nation's imagination through its increasingly sophisticated unmanned space missions — the efforts to keep the Mars rovers in operation alone should be enough to get the juices of budding engineers flowing — and the photographs coming back from our space probes and telescopes are greatly expanding our knowledge of the universe. The temporary hiatus in the manned space program doesn't mean that humanity's exploration of the cosmos will cease.

NASA shouldn't have a manned space program just for the sake of it. We should focus our efforts on manned space flight at the truly grand, and that most likely does mean an eventual mission to Mars, however distant the prospect may appear today. Presently, we don't have the technology to make such a venture feasible, but there's no point in pouring resources into another interim measure that aims no higher than a cheaper jaunt into low-earth orbit. Whether or not we can ever achieve the dream of inhabiting distant worlds and expanding the human presence outward from this tiny speck in the universe, we should remain focused on going where no man has gone before.

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