Shuttle Program – The End of an Era

Today I side-step the usual business of talking about Real Studio and programming and diverge a bit into science and politics.  Not much, but since today is the last launch of the space shuttle Atlantis it seemed appropriate.

I’m sure many of you are in the same boat that I am.  I can’t remember a time when NASA wasn’t doing something big, something people told them was impossible.  It was, and still is in my opinion, inspiring to many people.  And this just isn’t for Americans, I think this holds true for many people in the world.  They do (and have done) the hard things not because they are hard but because they want to answer important questions that satisfy the human curiosity.

Growing up in the 1970’s I remember the inspiring stories and amazing video footage from NASA.  In the 1980’s I remember the beginning of the Space Shuttle program and I can remember what I was doing and where I was when I heard about the Challenger disaster in 1986.  I was attending an engineering school and I knew classmates that eventually went on to work for NASA.  NASA really defined my generation of technicians, scientists and engineers in my opinion.

So today the end of an era is unfolding and NASA has nothing to replace the shuttle.  To get astronauts into space we have to pay Russia $50 million a seat to get them into space.  It might be a bargain, but it sticks in my craw as an American to have spent so much time, effort, money and the lives of astronauts to just abandon our efforts.

James P Hogan, a science fiction writer (who died just a year ago this week) once wrote a short story (I believe it was for Omni Magazine) where the premise was that the Russian and American space programs were doomed and that the Chinese would become the dominate players in space.  In the compendium that I read years after that short story was published, he argued that NASA was a clear example of the wrong way to run a space program.

His arguments are valid, at least to a certain extent.  The American space program had a number of competing programs in the late 1950’s (under various government and military agencies) and each had their own ideas on the best way to get into space (and stay there).  When NASA was founded, the competing programs went away and because of that they had to settle on ONE way to get into space.  Who knows, maybe one of the competing ways was better than what NASA ended up using.  We’ll never know.

His second argument was that NASA proved, unfortunately, that you literally could throw money at a problem to solve it.  That’s a simplification, of course, but it is true that many pieces of the Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs cost billions of dollars (those are in 1970’s dollars!).  I have no doubt that SOME of that money was wasted but I think of all the stuff that had to be invented first before they could solve the problem.  Engineering isn’t cheap when you have to invent new ways of doing things!

The shuttle program continued to push the boundaries of the technology of the time.  The push for lighter, stronger, more heat resistant materials was a boon for the material science community.  The push for lighter, faster computers can be felt too in todays computers.  But NASA is much more than just about space exploration.  They host a whole range of scientific endeavors – not all of it for space.  It’s not hard to find a list of research discoveries that have made their way into public use

For fiscal year 2010 NASA’s budget was about $18.7 billion dollars.  There’s no argument that that’s a lot of money.  The total cost of the war in Iraq, however, has cost the US taxpayers about $786 billion with another $431 billion for the war in Afghanistan.  Put into perspective, the cost of those two wars could fund NASA, at current levels, for 65 years!

The relatively new Department of Homeland Security budget request for 2011 was $56.3 billion which, according to my calculations, would allow NASA to operate for three years.  I would argue that NASA does more for our country (and the world) than the Department of Homeland Security.  Feel free to argue amongst yourselves if you disagree.

Many people have assumed that private industry will pick up the mantle of space travel.  I’ve heard it argued that NASA restricts private sector growth in space travel because it is the de-facto arbiter of all things space-related in the US.  That might be true but the sad fact is that, with a few notable exceptions, getting into space is prohibitively expensive (for now) and therefore is more or less in realm of governments to handle.

Some things, like space exploration and other science research, require government assistance due to the sheer amounts of money required.  It is my personal belief that being in space and exploring our immediate environment, and doing basic scientific research is well worth the money because it’s an investment in the future.

Sorry for the soapbox.  We now go back to our regularly scheduled programming….