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After Atlantis: The future of American Spaceflight

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image Orion is being designed for deep space exploration with an emphasis on astronaut safety. Mitch Traphagen Photo

“This isn’t the beginning of the end,” Garver said of the last shuttle launch. “This is the end of what was our beginning.”


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER ­— When the Space Shuttle Atlantis lands early next week, it will mark the end of the 30-year-old shuttle program and the beginning of a period when the United States will not have the capability to launch astronauts into space. It won’t be the first time that has happened. In the 1970s, there was an approximately six-year gap in American human spaceflight capability between the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle program.

But for many space observers, this time is different. From Apollo, NASA was running high after achieving something no other nation on earth, even today, has been able to achieve. Just a few short years after an ambitious challenge by President John F. Kennedy, America put men on the moon. From there, it seemed that anything was possible and that quantum leaps in technology would open the door to the solar system and the galaxy.

The shuttle, however, was never meant for deep space. It was not designed to leave the earth’s orbit. From the start, it was a fragile and highly complex aircraft, the most complicated machine ever devised by humankind, consisting of more than 2.5 million parts. Its mission was to learn more about earth rather than space. It would not and could not fly to the moon, to Mars or to an asteroid.

There is no GPS in deep space. Once outside of the domain of the International Space Station, also known as LEO, the system that people have taken for granted to find their way to a vacation spot or a store does not exist. Despite the incredible technology available to NASA engineers, traveling to Mars is not the same as traveling to a nearby IKEA store. Space travel is dangerous, and it almost certainly always will be.

But that wasn’t the vision. Astronaut safety was expected to increase in quantum leaps while costs were expected to be dramatically reduced as the program progressed. The original goals of the shuttle program were lofty, with dozens of flights envisioned each year. Legislators in Washington, however, are not scientists or engineers, and they hold the purse strings. The money required to increase safety and cost efficiency did not materialize. In some respects, the shuttle remained mired in its 1970s design.

NASA’s problem, perhaps, is that the people working there are so good at their jobs, so highly competent and capable that they have made spaceflight look easy. There was once a time when launching humans into space would make the entire world stop to watch, but eventually a shuttle launch became something that was taken for granted. More than 350 people have been launched into space aboard the shuttle, but few have become household names like the astronauts from the Apollo era. Those at NASA know the truth:  spaceflight isn’t easy. It is dangerous and daring, and those who take part risk everything on missions that are too often nothing more than minor blips on the news media radar.

Yet the Space Shuttle program has succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. The bulk of the equipment in space, the bulk of the International Space Station itself, arrived as cargo on a space shuttle. The vast majority of equipment returned from space also came back to earth in the cargo hold of a shuttle. On this mission alone, Atlantis carried 9,400 pounds of supplies to the space station, including nearly 2,700 pounds of food, enough to sustain space station operations for a year. Atlantis will also return 5,700 pounds of discarded gear to earth. There is no other vehicle on earth capable of such a feat.

The newest shuttle in the fleet, Endeavour, is nearly 20 years old. After its 25th and final flight in May, it was retired and by late next year it will serve as a display at the California Science Center. The oldest shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated over the skies of the southwestern United States in 2003. In 135 flights thus far, only two have ended in tragedy. Both caused NASA and the nation to pause and reflect, but the flights resumed as before: safer but not necessarily safe.

On the day before the launch of Atlantis last week, Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, presented the Orion capsule to the media. While she detailed the design features that will make human deep-space exploration possible, she focused on astronaut safety. Given the nature of space exploration, NASA’s safety record is stellar, but to them it is not good enough. NASA hopes that Orion will overcome some of the safety shortcomings in the space vehicles built over the past 50 years.

With a test capsule on a platform behind her, Garver touted Orion as the future of American human space exploration. This vehicle will someday return Americans to the moon, or land on Mars or a passing asteroid. NASA, she stressed, is not giving up on human spaceflight, it is trying to reach further — as fast and as safely as possible.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end,” Garver said of the last shuttle launch.  “This is the end of what was our beginning.”

When Orion will actually carry American astronauts into space, however, remains to be seen. It does not yet appear on NASA’s launch calendar, and it may not appear for years to come. But according to Garver and others at the space center, it most certainly will. Someday.

“Today’s kids will not fly on the shuttle but they will walk on Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Tuesday during a House Science Committee hearing.

The space shuttle remains an iconic and uniquely American achievement. A shuttle sitting on a launch pad or orbiting the earth is physical proof of the capabilities and accomplishments of the United States. Like landing on the moon, it is something that no other nation on earth has achieved. It represents a massive investment of money and talent that is also uniquely American. And what is more, it was all done for mainly peaceful purposes, for the advancement of not only the United States, but for all of humankind. The shuttle program’s contributions to science and to everyday life will take generations to tally.

Someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Orion will pick up the legacy of Colombia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour to reach for the stars in ways that the space shuttles could not. When Atlantis touches down on earth next week, the shuttle program will be over. The quest for exploration into the final frontier of space, however, remains alive. Beginning next week, the desire to get there will be greater than ever.

Further Coverage:

Atlantis launches the end of an era

Atlantis: Reporting on history

Observer News: Atlantis - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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