The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

Summary: It's the end of the future as we knew it as the U.S. backs out of manned spaceflight with Atlantis' last flight.

TOPICS: Nasa / Space

When I was a kid, growing up on a dirt-road in the middle of Appalachia, not too different from how Max Jones' childhood home in Robert A. Heinlein's Starman Jones, I dreamed of starships.

When I was older I followed the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions religiously, and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon I watched on a static filled color TV at a science camp. I dreamed of working at NASA, and, oddly enough, despite my liberal arts degrees I ended up working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in the 80s. During my time there I met astronauts, worked at GSFC's Spacecraft Tracking and Data (Acquisition) Network (STDN) for eight Shuttle missions and I saw the Challenger disaster.

After that horrible day, I saw, and in a very, very small way, helped NASA return to flight. Then, I left NASA. I did it because I was starting my career as a technology journalist and because I had learned how NASA was slowly dying on the vine.

A friend asked me recently how we ever ended up giving up-and make no mistake about it that's what we're doing-on manned space-flight. My answer was, "When haven't we?"

In 1969, with Apollo 11 going to the moon, the U.S. reached its apex of interest in space. It's been all down hill ever since then. When I was in Goddard in the 80s, I discovered that NASA's missions were being held together with duct-tape, bailing wire, and the devotion of staffers who wouldn't give up on the dream of space.

What do I mean by that? In 1989, my last year at NASA, one of my jobs was to monitor the health of all our Earth-bound network connections for Shuttle systems using a database system I'd developed. In the course of that I discovered that we were still using Telex lines from the 1950s, capable of 110-bits-per-second (BPS), for tertiary communications.

Look at the Shuttle itself. It's 1970s technology. We should have built better; we should be on our third generation of manned space-ships. By 2011, we should have Earth to near-earth orbit shuttles that can take off and land from any major airport. Instead, Atlantis, which has just lifted off, is the last of the true government-sponsored Earth space ships I expect to see in my lifetime.

Orion? NASA and Lockheed Martin's Orion crew module spacecraft? It's a step backward to the multi-stage rocket days. The real future of manned space-flight lies in companies like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

As for NASA, though, no matter what NASA director Michael Griffin says about that the space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) being mistakes, the truth of the matter is NASA's has been slowly dying for decades due to lack of sufficient funding and executive vision. By now we should be on Mars. Instead, we're looking down at the ground at our feet.

There's a lot to be said for looking at our own world from space, but at one time we were also looking at the stars. I wish, oh how I wish, we still were looking to the skies and reaching out to them. Instead, manned space-flight is returning to where it began: science-fiction.

God speed Atlantis. May your final flight end with a successful return.

Related Stories:

Requiem for America's space shuttle program

NASA's last Shuttle mission: What does this mean for the future of manned flight?

Shuttle Atlantis through the years (photos)

Does end of the Space Shuttle mean NASA lost its mojo?

NASA admits shuttle, ISS were mistakes

Topic: Nasa / Space

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  • We could have been easily on Mars by now, if the government would not spend

    ... trillions of dollars on wars, most of which are illegal and break international conventions that prohibit cluster bombs, uranium-stuffed shells, concentration camps and prisons where people held without trial.<br><br>Pentagon maintains about 900 bases/objects in more than 40 countries of the world.
    • Or you could totally be wrong

      and have nothing to do with it (while all the things you mention being needed and should continue) and instead that the US government no longer cares about the space program as it is easier for all parties to buy votes, instead of earning votes.
      John Zern
      • Or I can be right since every year NASA goes through endless fights in ...

        @John Zern: ... parliament, where it tries to arrange at least some money for the space programs. And they are always told that there is no money (though there is always money to support USA's role as world's gendarme and instil further hatred towards the country -- while American people never actually voted for any of the things I mentioned to be done on their behalf).
  • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

    @DeRSS, Get off your political agenda or go find the right forum. This has nothing to do with it! Great article Steven.
    • Steven discussed NASA budget, so what I was saying is directly related to

      @kraviwannabe: ... this article. Pentagon and NASA compete for the same money and, of course, NASA always loses.
      • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

        @DeRSSS I'm gonna have to weigh in to agree with you here. It's directly relevant. I don't think it's a long shot to deduce that the heavy lifting program has been put on hold by the Govt due to the huge debt they have accumulated. This situation wouldn't exist had they not been throwing hundreds of billions of dollars around on wars designed (but failing) to ensure US dominance over the Middle East oil and gas supplies.

        I think the money would have been way better spent on boosting space exploration, not so much in direct monetary terms (though money to be made from heavy lifting until commercial entities take over) but in the development of technology and science, which is ultimately a huge steroid injection into the economy...
  • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

    Elsewhere (on a list Steven and I both subscribe to) someone quoted Churchill: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

    I'm hanging on to that, to NASA's ideas of where the program is going and, now, to your comments about Heinlein.

    He sent us to the stars with his words. And his words will keep us aware, as many people aren't, of the truly amazing things we've done and the continuing excitement of where we might go.

    You know that I've shared the bitterness of this is the end of the space program. But somewhere along the line of watching the launch today I found that I'd stopped looking at the past and instead looking towards the future.

    Saying so is both dramatic -- I've read a lot of Heinlein -- and pragmatic. EGO licentia conclusion ut an exerceo pro lector.
  • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

    The move to private spaceships like Virgin and SpaceX is long overdue, it should have happened 40 years ago after the Apollo flights. We've had a socialist space program and socialism doesn't work. Governments don't innovate except at a time of war and the space program ceased to be part fo the cold war after the Apollo Soyuz flights. The aircraft industry was never government controlled, although the Army, Navy and Post Office were early customers, and 30 years after the Wrights first flight we had the DC3 and 25 years later we had the 707. The computer industry was never government controlled, although the government was an early customer, and five years after ENIAC we had Univac, 15 years later the 360, 30 years later the PC, and 60 years later smart phone. What do we have 54 years after Sputnik, we have nothing and the Russians have a slightly improved version of their 1960s space capsule. Moving to a model where NASA is just a customer for private space companies will hopefully result in the first real progress in two generations.
    • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

      @bjrosen@... I agree with the philosophy of where you are coming from, but the reality is not so simple. Leaving the surface of this planet, and returning, safely, is simply the most expensive and technologically demanding activity that has ever been attempted by the human race. It's simply not been in the purvue of private industry until recently to participate due to the huge cost of r&d. NASA has been necessary to provide leadership. Now, it is time for private industry to start taking over, and that's where you see enterprises such as Virgin Galactic (which is a huge risk financially) and other private heavy lifting developments starting to perculate.
  • RE: The end of the future: The last Shuttle flight

    I tend to agree with your sentiments.

    What isn't mentioned in this article or the one linked to is that what NASA wanted was more of a task list such as "go to the moon by the end of the decade". Instead Congress and Nixon and his successors gave "we want reusable vehicles and for efficiency everyone must use the same vehicle for everything because that will be more efficient and recycling is good". So go off and give us numbers that make this all look like real science and we'll then give you the money.

    So NASA did it and we got the shuttle and the ISS. And poured money into these holes for 30 years. And we almost did the same thing with the Constellation project. It had to be designed at sites where Congress said to design it and it had to use old shuttle parts for "efficiency". And now much of it is gone.

    Maybe this is the only way out but Congress killed manned space flight by NASA. They bought the gun, loaded it, gave it to NASA and said shoot thyself in the head. They just don't admit to doing it.
  • Good Riddance

    The Shuttle was old before it was born - Why *return* stuff from Space? IT'S IDIOTIC!!!! Shuttle C was the way to go; Get the ET's into orbit, put Inflatables INSIDE the ET's. Build Stanford Wheels out of the ET's and SPIN EM UP! People NEED gravity! Put people into these real space stations AND DON"T BRING EM BACK - like Cortez burnt his boats pick those who want to gooooo! Geez, pick me! But that will never happen - I am just a very ordinary Joe, and the space race was won by the HerrenVolk... No average Joes there! Ye gods the waste of money since Apollo (Skylab was OK, but) The US has been artfully diverted since WW2 - a succession of fruitless expensive wars, with the vanquished propelled towards economic victory, whilst staunch allies are ruthlessly thwarted... what gives with that? How has that worked to advantage the US? Or more than temporarily advantage the Robber Baron Corporations?
    Aaaaaargh, you could have had it all! Moon, Mars, Asteroids - endless 'manifest destiny'
    Is there any hope?
    Quick - use the web to organise a buy-up of the ET facility in Michaud, ditto for the SRB's and SME's. Put Shuttle-C into action - return nothing, especially Astronauts; build Stanford Wheels in LEO and then USE THEM for exploration, rolling out like 21'st century wagon wheels...
    Laugh if you like but this is all do-able NOW! With Current technology. And a closed loop self sustaining space station is the best test bed for a sustainable PLANET that I know of - close the life loop in Space and you solve the sustainability issue here on old Terra once and for all...

    but you had better move quick now, y'all
  • Almost all big projects are behind in technology at launch.

    Anytime you have a 10 year project you will run into the problem of some if being behind the times. You can't be constantly changing things on-the-fly and finish the project on time.

    Some of the posters and bloggers mentioned, in my opinion, aren't thinking realistically.