On @ The 90: Reflections, Reviews & Thoughts In The ‘New’ Era

On @ The 90 is a new weekly feature that contains editorials, reviews and other items of interest regarding the state of the U.S. space program in general and Kennedy Space Center in particular. Image Credit: Jason Rhian

The Shuttle Era Ends – Now What?

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – Rolling out of bed at 1 a.m. I got dressed and began my journey across the state to Kennedy Space Center. Thoughts on how this day would impact our nation rolled through my mind. After today we would lose all the capabilities that the space shuttle has and be reliant on our “partners” the Russians.

I knew the images I took would not come out – so I set up my camcorder and just waited and watched. It pained me to think that we had plenty of time to avert a “gap” in U.S. manned spaceflight efforts, but politics had decided that there would be no moderate middle road.

The shuttle’s twin sonic booms woke me out of my revelry and most of the rest of Central Florida out of what was probably a very sound sleep. I posted my article and went to the NASA Exchange to pick up a few things. A NASA worker in line behind me looked at an item that read “Shuttle Program – We Made History.” He scoffed, “They got it wrong – it should read – ‘We Are History.’ ” I had to agree with him. There have been many initiatives, plans and test articles – today’s SpaceX is tomorrow’s Constellation Program.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the shuttle program should never end. Cue the jeers from the knee-jerk reactionary shuttle-haters. Hear me out. Look up the word “shuttle” in the dictionary. The description is as follows:

“A public conveyance, as a train, airplane, or bus, that travels back and forth at regular intervals over a particular route, especially a short route or one connecting two transportation systems.”

The definition lacks specifics and does not say that whatever this conveyance is – it cannot grow as technology improves. This is how the shuttle program should have been and how it should continue to be. As one form becomes obsolete or out dated – the lessons from that version are incorporated into the next generation. A perfect example is how the U.S. went from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo in about seven years.

Even the shuttle’s official designation, STS, stands for Space Transportation System. Again, it states transportation to and fro – not stagnation. Make no mistake; the shuttle in its current configuration was stagnant. Sure between the first flight and today some upgrades have been made, but, for all intents and purposes, it is essentially the same vehicle that we flew 30 years ago.

Compare that with the first flight of Mercury in 1961, that within eight years our crewed spacecraft had evolved from a rudimentary pod to a dual ship system that would allow us to land on the moon. In that same length of time, from 2003 to 2010, NASA went from the Columbia disaster to a single test flight under the Constellation Program, and then to limbo. And until a U.S. astronaut enters orbit on a U.S. spacecraft, it is precisely that – limbo.

If politicians had not interfered, the shuttle-station program (as it was originally envisioned) would have taken place in the 1980s. The U.S. could have then focused on incorporating innovations into the second-generation of shuttle. And where would we be now? We would probably be on the third generation of the vehicle. But the orbiter became NASA’s sacred cow, its flagship, and it clung to it for far too long.

The shuttle was the flawed creation of a variety of different makers. Yes, they had problems, but they were not mistakes. No other spacecraft could enter orbit, deliver, retrieve and repair satellites. No other manned spacecraft had the cargo capacity or the robotic manipulator system that the shuttle had – not one. So when you hear tell of rockets or spacecraft that will “replace” the shuttle – laugh – because none can match what the shuttle could do.

In the final analysis, the shuttle was a magnificent creation, versatile, fragile, durable, brittle, flexible and deeply flawed; it was, in the end, very much both a product and a reflection of the nation that built it. That said, the nation in the 1970s built an amazing craft. Before building the Shuttle, the nation, using slide rules, balsa wood test articles and rudimentary tools, went from a sub orbital hop to landing a man on the moon. In essentially the same amount of time, we as a nation have proven unable to produce a far simpler vehicle than the one that landed at KSC on Thursday.

With all the technology in the world at our disposal we have been unable to avoid a gap in our crewed access to space, no matter how much NASA’s Administrator wants to claim otherwise. We were once able to invent new technology and propel ourselves to another world in a span of seven years; now we are unable to fly a modified version of what we were using in 1967. The Orion (or whatever the politicians want it called) should have already been tested, taken on a shake down flight and been waiting for the shuttle fleet to retire. But it isn’t and that points to a massive failure of leadership – at all levels.

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