Looking onwards, looking upwards

The Shuttle takes its final bow

In the next hours, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is going to flip onto its back, its Orbital Maneuvering System thrusters are going to fire, and for the final time in history a Space Shuttle will deorbit.

The 30-year Space Transportation System program is not without its share of drama and setbacks. We all remember the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, and we all think of them as often as we think of the Shuttle’s successes. The program never actually fulfilled its original goals: the orbiters are reusable, but only after extensive inspection and parts replacement; the cost of the program per launch, even if you ignore the overhead generated by the extensive maintenance periods and costs, never matched the original projections; the safety of the system is still in question.

Going to space has not, as once was promised, become routine.

Far from it. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Remembering just how exceptional it is that we can do what we can do in space reminds us that we face many challenges yet, and there are grand problems to be solved yet. Sometimes we forget this fact, as a nation. It shouldn’t take a Challenger or a Columbia to remind us that missions to outer space are not routine, but with 20,958 orbits, 134 missions, 45 dockings with a space station, and well over three and a half cumulative years in space, it’s easy to forget just how incredible it is that we’ve built this machine.

And what a machine it is. It can accomplish things in space that no craft before it could dream of doing — indeed, that no craft currently planned for the future could dream of doing. It can not just launch cargo into space, but act as a staging platform from which to prepare it before installing it to a space station, or launching it elsewhere into orbit or beyond. It can fly to an orbiting object, capture it, and act as a servicing platform from which to do repairs. It can bring home large, heavy payloads safely, within the protection of its heat shield. The International Space Station would not have been possible without its capabilities as a construction staging vehicle. The Hubble space telescope would not have been possible without it — not any of the five servicing missions that made it usable, last, and look to the future.

And then there’s that, too — the Hubble. The images it has brought back to us are burned into our memories. There’s the one with the nebula, with what appear to be pillars of dark stardust cast against an eerie blue-green glow. There’s the one with the spiral galaxy, with spirals of milky white descending upon an orange glow. And who can forget that most incredible of images, the Hubble ultra-deep field, with what appear to be hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies, numerous as the stars we can see painted above us at night, all uniquely shaped and colored, and all within a fraction of a fraction of a degree of the night sky. What single machine has brought us images have invited as much awe, have proved so humbling, and have inspired so many young and old as this?

And this is what I’m afraid of.

I’m afraid of a future in which that most extraordinary, inspiring science organization in the world, is no longer going to have the tools to amaze us.

The Space Shuttle is, even ignoring its vast capabilities, the most beautiful spacecraft ever built. Put next to all the others we’ve ever flown as a civilization, it’s as if one were looking at a Veyron alongside a collection of oxcarts. There’s something about its plane-like shape, the expectation that it wants to move forward as a plane does, that makes those launches so dramatic and awe-inspiring: that space plane upon its back, nose pointed at the sky, aching to reach further and further upwards.

Our next spacecraft is to be another round, gumdrop-shaped capsule.

And Hubble, that telescope that is single-handedly responsible for bringing so many young children and students into science and technology: it will operate as long as it can, but unless a robotic mission boosts it to a higher orbit, and unless its gyroscopes last longer than their earlier-generation predecessors, the venerable telescope will cease to be operational within the next 8 years — perhaps sooner.

Our next space telescope does not take visible-light, color images; only near-infrared.

I am afraid of a future where the greatest science and engineering organization on the planet, one that is perhaps the most prominent ambassador to the rest of the people in our nation and upon our planet, is no longer capable of producing the most extraordinary machines on Earth. I’m afraid of a future in which NASA resigns itself to what is reasonable, rather than what is possible. I’m afraid of a future in which we no longer have images to inspire our youth into studying science and technology.

And I’m afraid that that future is very near to us indeed.

I’m going to miss the Atlantis. It may in fact be my favorite of the orbiters. It performed the final Hubble servicing mission, one that we feared may never have come to pass. It was the first and most frequent Shuttle to dock with the Space Station Mir, ushering a new era of international cooperation in space exploration. And it is the last Shuttle to fly a mission in outer space.

In the opening of the latest revision of the book Moon Shot, Tom Stafford, astronaut aboard various Gemini and Apollo missions, watches the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and remarks wistfully that “life was good when magnificent machines flew.”

Goodbye, Atlantis. You were a magnificent machine. I hope it is not long before we see a machine in your image fly again.

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