Requiem for America's space shuttle program

Requiem for America's space shuttle program

Summary: Emotionally, I almost can't accept that NASA is out of the airframe-lofting business for the next bunch of years.

TOPICS: Nasa / Space

Update: See the end of this article for a comment by a Shuttle worker.

I live in Brevard County, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center. I'm not from here. I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Massachusetts, New York, and California. Even though I've now lived in Brevard for six years, I'm still not fully "of" this place. I don't like the heat, I don't like the sand, and I'm not partial to the sun.

I do like the people, though. When we left New Jersey, the typical Wal-Mart greeter would say hello or goodbye with something along the lines of "What are you looking at?" When we moved to Florida, the contrasting "Have a blessed day" was quite nice. Now, I'm way, way far from being a religious man, but I'll take the warmth of "Have a blessed day" any time over the implied threat of the typical New Jersey conversation. Religious-tinged greetings are weird, admittedly, but they're also kind of sweet.

I'm telling you this because a lot (a lot) of my fellow Brevardians are about to lose their jobs. Brevard is not exactly a top-tier county when it comes to employment, but now that the last Space Shuttle mission is about to fly, another 1,900 or so hard-working Americans are going to be out of work.

I am of very mixed feelings here.

It bothers me deeply that once Atlantis roars off Pad 39A and executes Mission STS-135, America will no longer have a civilian lift capacity of any kind. The idea that we'll have to rely on the Russians (of all nations) to bring us to the International Space Station rankles down to my ankles.

On the other hand, America's space program has been mind-blowingly expensive and has had some very serious failures. NASA has been run into the ground with some astoundingly poor management practices, and -- at the same time -- civilian space flight has blossomed.

There is no doubt that the Space Shuttle fleet is old.

It's 30 years old, this year. STS-1 with the Space Shuttle Columbia, was launched on April 12, 1981 off the very same pad, Pad 39A, that Atlantis will be leaving on later today. We all watched in horror after 27 missions, when Columbia's final flight ended fatally, when it broke apart on re-entry in February 2003.

According to an article in the Washington Post, the shuttle airframes are certified for 100 flights, and most have logged less than half of that.

And yet, we all know what's inside the shuttles: 1970s technology. The machines are old and obsolete and should have been replaced years ago. Of course, as we all know, the United States didn't replace the shuttles. Programs were planned, and then cancelled. Budgets were requested, and then nerfed.

America's space program has been the story of both the right stuff -- and the wrong stuff. Of American heroes -- and political failures.

So here we are. Atlantis is on the pad. America's space-bound future is on hold. And, pretty soon, we'll be dependent on the Russians to get back and forth to the space station we, here in America, pioneered.

Like many things in America, there is no black-and-white answer.

Emotionally, I almost can't accept that NASA is out of the airframe-lofting business for the next bunch of years. But as a fiscally-conscious American, I also viscerally despise the waste and stupidity we've seen managing many of America's projects.

We will never regain the idealism of the day when JFK challenged us to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. Maybe that's a good thing. For idealism can obscure inspection, introspection, and examination, and as we've seen -- over and over -- the American space program is exceptional, but flawed. It needs inspection and oversight.

It also needs a new vision, one for the next decade and, yes, for the next century.

This is an opportunity for President Obama and the Candidates 2012. I do believe America must have home-owned orbital lofting capability outside the military. I also know that many of the innovations we enjoy daily are here as a side-effect of the American space program.

Looking into the future, we need a vision, a strategy, and a commitment to space -- efficient, effective, smart space travel. Perhaps one of our upcoming candidates will outline a plan. Perhaps President Obama will revisit some of his decisions. Or, perhaps we'll bequeath the pride, excitement, and industrial and technological advancement that comes from having a space program to one of those other countries, like China or Russia.

Man, that'd be a shame, wouldn't it?

Shortly after I moved down here to Brevard county, I was in my home office when the entire roof shook. I'd experienced that sort of shaking in California; it almost felt like an earthquake and it sounded like a roof beam had cracked. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was what it felt like when a shuttle broke the sound barrier.

Since that day, I've had the opportunity to feel my roof shake, to hear the crack, and to experience the sonic boom of our shuttles breaking the sound barrier almost 20 times.

Later today, I hope to feel that shake one...last...time.

Update: The following was posted to the comments below by someone who says he works in the shuttle program. It's a statement I thought worthy of having you all read:

I am a Shuttle Program employee. Today a room was set aside for Space Shuttle Program employees with video for last Space Shuttle launch ever. As people entered the room some laughed and joked but as the launch came near the room quieted. The final moments arrived and the Shuttle launched receiving applause. Then as the moments after liftoff stretched into minutes the silence remained. Several left with tears in their eyes. Most remained until external tank separation. As I left only silence was heard. Entering an packed elevator the doors closed behind me. There also only silence.

See also:

Topic: Nasa / Space


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • You nailed it, perhaps ironically

    "We will never regain the idealism of the day when JFK challenged us to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to Earth"

    ... and that is why America will no longer be a great nation for a long time to come.

    You stress that idealism should be replaced with "efficient, effective, smart" - terms that you use to frame a space program going forward.

    Idealism isn't about NASA, or the moon, or any specific one thing. I would submit that idealism is about taking a chance precisely when you *don't* know the road ahead. Idealism is about taking a leap of faith.

    "efficient, effective, smart" might get you a Pyramid constructed, but it won't get you Michelangelo's David.

    I'm not suggesting that America throw money away at every idea or proposal, but if it's come to the point where America cowers in fear at the mere thought of spending money to pursue the unknown, it's a nation whose time is done.
    • It's not scared of throwing money at the unknown, instead

      it is throwing money at people they know will get them re-elected.

      Politicians do not need to inspire people into voting for them, today they just "pay" them to vote for them.
      John Zern
      • agree!

        @John Zern
        just give some tax cuts to the people and they will figure out a way to advance the space program.
        Linux Geek
      • Good riddance

        At last we got rid of that money-wasting, human-killing, unsafe vehicle built on old technology.

        By now we should have been in Mars but wasting time on the space shuttles was simply preventing us from doing so.
      • Too true

        @John Zern I was about to post the same thing. Our space program went south as soon as the welfare mob outnumbered the truly progressive folks in this country. The ruling class finds it much easier to directly bribe votes than to do what's advantageous but not blindingly obvious to obtuse voters. Welcome to Idiocracy.
    • BS

      people need money in their pockets not some liberal ideas about 'redistributing the wealth' in the name of some outdated ideal. Let the free market decide!
      Linux Geek
      • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

        Foolish as usual.
    • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

      Well said.
    • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

      @croberts : Space is no longer so "unknown". We've scoped out the places we can reach (moon, Mars, Venus) and there's little for us in any of those places. We should keep exploring them with robots, but stop the manned space program until we find something useful.
    • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

      @croberts "Never" is a long time..."efficient, effective, smart" might get you a Pyramid constructed, but it won't get you Michelangelo's David."...But it will get high resolution photos, soil, gas samples and every other type of data from distant places, which may save a lot of expense and wasted effort in the future...
      And how exactly does Michelangelo's David help you get into outer Space?
  • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

    Great launch. Godspeed Atlantis, see you in a few days.

    Here's looking to FINALLY breaking away from flying around the planet and putting boots on alien turf.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Unlikely to happen

      @Cylon Centurion The Apollo program was 5% of GNP. NASA is currently funded at a tenth of that. There's simply not enough investment being made to even return to the moon, let alone breaking out of the local Lagrange points with astronauts on board.
      • Wait a Minute

        @rbethell - There was a person on NPR about 05July and said that if you looked at the "inflation adjusted" dollars, NASA had about the same $$$ as used during the Apollo missions in the 60's! He went on to say that it was enough budget to finance a mission to Mars and back.
        Who Knew?
      • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

        @Hal-9001 "There was a person on NPR "
        Enough said.

        NASA has been receiving in inflation adjusted dollars less every year for the last few years. A Mars budget would dwarf the Shuttle Program. Check it out. There are enough analysis out there.
      • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program


        Actually, if you examine the word of someone who actually knows what the hell he is talking about, you'd find that NASA could put men on Mars for 16% of it's current budget, yearly, and form a permanent human base there. It would cost the equivalent of 2 months in Iraq at most.

        Or a summary if you don't have an hour:

        This is using 1991 technology. We've had the capacity for decades, but there has been no drive, no strong mandate to do so.

        And before you call the man's expertise into question, if you are an aerospace engineer with 30 years or more experience, you are allowed to argue. Otherwise, I'd suggest to you the same thing I suggest to all those laymen who believe they should have an equal opinion to knowledgeable experts in their own fields: Shut up and multiply.
  • And so...

    ...the United States says "OK China, India.... it's all yours."

    How unbelievably stupid.

    But not unexpected... as the US bobsleds down the course toward becoming an also-ran country, little better than a side-line spectator.
    Hallowed are the Ori
    • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

      @Hallowed are the Ori : Fine, let China and India waste their money burning fuel to send metal into space. The manned space program has turned into a jobs program, with no useful goal. We built ISS to have somewhere to fly the Shuttle to, and we built the Shuttle to have something to fly to the ISS. Madness !
  • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program

    Thank you, you've captured both my emotional and logical thoughts on this exactly. Very well written article.
    Little Midnight
  • We Should Fully Fund NASA...

    ...for manned space flight just as soon as we can do it with a balanced budget. Yes, there are ways - passing the Fair Tax would get rid of this recession and brighten the future of this country like few things ever have, but political corruption that comes with the income tax will not be given up by politicians that benefit from it until WE ALL demand it of them under pain of being voted out. But we're not yet that smart, either...
    • RE: Requiem for America's space shuttle program


      I'd rather spend the (considerably less) money on UNMANNED space research. You know...actual science.