10 days after Atlantis blasted off on its final trip into space for STS-135 the last ever space shuttle mission has finally returned to earth, signalling an end to the 30 year program and marking the end of an era for space. For many of us young star gazers the space shuttle is an icon, something that embodied the human spirit ever searching for new frontiers to explore. For me personally it symbolized something I felt truly passionate about, a feeling that I had not been familiar with for a very long time. Many will lament its loss but it has come time for NASA to reinvent itself, leaving the routine of low earth orbit for new frontiers that eagerly await them.
Atlantis’ final firey return back to earth, as seen from the International Space Station.
Image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center (via @NASA_Johnson)
The shuttle was, from a technical point of view, too much of a compromise between government agencies for it to be able to achieve the goals set out for it. There’s no denying it was an extremely versatile craft but many of the design decisions made were at odds with the end goals of making a reusable craft that could cater to all of the USA’s launch needs for the next 30 years. Constellation then would look like a step in the right direction however whilst it was a far more appropriate craft for NASA’s current needs their money is better spent on pushing their capability envelope, rather than designing yet another launch system.
NASA, to their credit, appears to be in favour of offloading their launch capabilities to private industry. They already have contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to provide both launch capabilities and crew/cargo capsules however attempts to fully privatize their more rudimentary activities have been routinely blocked by congress. It’s no secret that much of the shuttle’s manufacturing process is split up across states for purely political purposes (it made no sense to build the external tank so far away that it needed a barge to ship it back) and the resistance from congress for private launch systems is indicative of that. Still they have their foot in the door now and this opens up the opportunity for NASA to get back to its roots and begin exploring the final frontier.
There’s no denying that we’ve made great progress with robotic space exploration, reaching out to almost every section of our solar system and exploring their vast wonders. However not since 1972 has a human left low earth orbit, something people of the time wouldn’t believe if you told them so. Whilst it might not be the most efficient way of exploring the universe it’s by far the best for inspiring the next generation:
It’s a historic day and it will mark a turning point for NASA and space flight in the USA one way or another. It’s my fervent hope that NASA uses this as an opportunity to refocus on its core goals of pushing the envelope of what’s possible for humanity through exploring that vast black frontier of space. It won’t be an easy journey for NASA, especially considering the greater economic environment they’re working in right now, but I know the people there are more than capable of doing it and the USA needs them in order to inspire the next generation.