Thursday, March 3, 2011

T + 50: The Bus To Nowhere

For those in my generation who were children when the space shuttle program started, it might seem strange now (or perhaps just make us feel old) to find ourselves at the end of the space shuttle era. In 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia first roared aloft early on a bright Sunday morning in April, the space shuttle seemed new, futuristic, exciting, and even a little glamorous. During the second and third launches, which occurred during school hours, my 5th grade class spent the day watching the launch coverage on TV.

By the time the space shuttle became operational, in late 1982, I decided that it was no longer worth paying a lot of attention since the whole idea of the space shuttle was to make space flight "routine". Despite the tragedy of the Challenger explosion in 1986 shocking us into the realization that human space flight would "never be routine", the general public, my space nerd self included, relegated the space shuttle to the storage closet of its consciousness. Few saw it as even remotely central to current American or world history as many had seen the space program of the 1960s. Only on rare occasions, such as the return to space of John Glenn in 1998 and above all the destruction of Columbia itself in 2003, did the average American pay any attention to the space shuttle, and in the case of the Columbia disaster, it was largely to question why, exactly, we were doing this anyway.

The question is worth the asking. Why indeed? Why, after landing on the moon "before the decade [of the 1960s] is out", did we spend the next 40 years focusing the resources and energies of our national space program on a shuttle... essentially a bus between earth and near-earth space? Given the tremendous strides the space program made in the 60s (from the first American in space in 1961 to landing on the moon in 1969), the space program since the 1970s has been nothing if not tame. Little wonder that people lost interest and enthusiasm. People are inspired by poetry and adventure, by daring and mystery, not by prosaic workaday chores and errands which the poor space shuttle, the workhorse of NASA, has so often been consigned to do.

The space shuttle was compromised before it even got started because of the Nixon administration's stinginess. The whole concept of a space shuttle is to provide taxi service between the earth and an orbiting space station, as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It might have seemed at the time (1972) that NASA being committed to developing a space shuttle was bringing us one step closer to the fulfillment of the future imagined by that film, but there was one crucial flaw: the space station was left out of the picture. So the shuttle was doomed to become, for many years at least, a bus to nowhere. Many of the early flights were devoted to launching telecommunications satellites for corporations. Hardly romantic or inspiring.

One of the sad ironies of the space shuttle program is that, even though it never actually succeeded in making space flight routine (which had indeed been its primary reason for existence), it did succeed in making it feel routine to the American public. This is not the fault of the space shuttle itself. The shuttle, born out of compromise due to budget limitations and a lack of political will, was perhaps doomed from birth not to live up to its full potential. The shortsightedness of our national space agency and our Congress only further prevented it from realizing its full potential by being what it was meant to be: a humble but integral part of a fully functioning space program--a space program, and therefore a space shuttle, that had some clue about what it was there for and where, exactly, it was going.

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