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Good Riddance: How the Shuttle and the Space Station Crippled America’s Space Program

| May 28, 2011

Long past time to go into the night. Space Shuttle Endeavour on a March 2008 mission. (NASA)

FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam’s weekly commentaries are broadcast on WNZF on Fridays just after 9 a.m. Here’s this week’s.

Ten days ago I was in Flagler Beach to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour and take a few pictures. It was moving, as always, to see what from this vantage point looks like an upside down candle quietly rise into the sky while closer to earth a few thousand hearts just as quietly rise into throats clenched against a repeat of 1986, when the Challenger exploded after take-off.

More people than usual had turned out perhaps because the commander of the mission is Mark Kelly, husband of the Arizona congresswoman shot in that madman’s murderous spree in Tucson in January. Or because Endeavour’s mission is the next-to-last in the shuttle’s 135-mission history, going back to that first launch in April 1981—curiously enough, just a few days after John Hinkley’s assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan, who ended up watching the launch on TV in the White House on his first day back from the hospital. But as Endeavour has been circling the globe at 17,000 miles an hour in low orbit, another space-age marker passed with hardly a word. It was 50 years ago Wednesday that John Kennedy appeared before a joint session of Congress for what he called a second State of the Union message to challenge the nation to spend up to $40 billion and put a man on the moon by decade’s end.

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He wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon in “the battle for men’s minds,” as Kennedy put it. Congress put up the money and Neil Armstrong became the first of 12 apostles of American ambition to walk on the moon between July 1969 and December 1972. The Apollo program was a high point in man’s ability to achieve seemingly impossible goals, but at a price. The program ended up costing $150 billion in today’s dollars, a big price to pay for a little prestige against a nation that doesn’t even exist anymore. And while the United States managed to send 12 men to the moon, it did so while sending 57,000 men and women to their deaths closer to home, in Vietnam. By the time that war and the Apollo program were winding down, no one was really interested in either. Both proved less necessary than advertised.

The 1970s deepened the gloom. As an account in The Times had it, moon shots “seemed to have gone the way of military invincibility, cheap fuel, the sound dollar and even unquestioning confidence in American technological supremacy.” So when Space Shuttle Columbia first rose into the Florida sky 30 years ago, there was a good deal of reaffirmation in a faith that seemed on the skids.

But the space shuttle never captured that Apollo-size imagination, and it certainly never lived up to its original billing as a cheap, routine shuttle that would achieve great things in space. Its greatest achievement, besides its own existence as a job machine on Florida’s space coast, is the dismal International Space Station, a white elephant once sold as the first step toward the stars, but that ended up being nothing more than a million-pound clunker to nowhere 200 miles up that, come decade’s end, will ditch into the Pacific Ocean. Between that thing and the space shuttle, each of whose mission costs about $1 billion, twice as much money was spent as on the Apollo program. Besides the thrill of a launch or the entertainment value of celebrity passengers on the shuttle, it’s difficult to justify the expense.

And to think that NASA was looking to the moon again and then to Mars, at costs twice those of the shuttle and space station combined. President Obama was right to put an end to the manned space program for now. We don’t need a Babel Tower in orbit. If there’s still interest in sending astronauts twirling around space, let the Russians or the private sector carry on. NASA’s unmanned space program is more interesting and useful to science, at a fraction of the cost. The Hubble Space Telescope by itself has done more for science and humanity’s knowledge about its place in the universe than all the shuttle missions combined. NASA’s planetary explorers have done wonders, too, and can continue to do so, as would a new generation of space telescopes. That’s where America’s space future is.

So when Space Shuttle Atlantis leaves Cape Canaveral for the last time on July 8, I’ll be in Flagler Beach again, but without the tears. As Spock once put it in the original Star Trek series, “We simply must accept the fact that Captain Kirk is no longer alive.” Better yet: we no longer need him.

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8 Responses for “Good Riddance: How the Shuttle and the Space Station Crippled America’s Space Program”

  1. LOL says:

    I do not agree Pierre…these days access to space has become a matter of security just as much if not moreso than exploration. I am not comfortable with having to rely on another country’s space program to get us there.

  2. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Au contraire. We need Captain Kirk desperately.

    The space shuttle and international space station programs were instituted so that we could all make believe the Soviets were players in space. Someday the story of their failures will be told.

    The Vietnam war era was a disgrace. It was the anti-war movement that was responsible for debacle in Vietnam. You and your like-minded brethren should hang your heads in shame for the millions killed by the communists in southeast Asia after we left the Vietnamese swinging in the wind, but there was a silver lining, quoting Tom Lehrer, “They may have won all the battles, but we had all the good songs.”

  3. Richard Calderwood says:

    Who cares what you think?

  4. Outsider says:

    Ah yes, more justification for the inexplicable actions of the most inept, unqualified president in the history of our once great country. The fact of the matter is Obama said years ago he believed the space program was a waste of money, and it would be better spent helping those in need here on Earth. Blaming it on the space station or the Vietnam war or whatever doesn’t solve the question as to why this man can’t wait to spend billions on the continuation of unemployment benefits, decries the lack of jobs, then eagerly puts our best and brightest right on the unemployments line with millions of others. He seems to think money is better spent on useless university studies on how gay men interact in bars in Brazil and saving the environment of some allegedly endangered and indispensible rat in California. You also seem to forget that if it weren’t for the space shuttle that Hubble space telescope would be a useless near-sighted pile of junk floating around the planet. Perhaps you’ve also forgotten how many military satellites the shuttle deployed, thereby increasing our security. Of course, many on the left despise our military power and react with glee as our defense systems are dismantled and we become more vulnerable to the tyrants they seem to idolize. Oh yes, good riddance; now we have more money to buy school lunches for kids who’s parents seem to be unable to find five bucks for some peanut butter and jelly and a loaf of bread while they have no trouble buying their beer and cigarettes. Oh, what a (changed) country.

  5. Jack Cowardin says:

    In retrospect, you have a strong argument, Pierre. But we are only, or leading in, doing what man is so efficient and productive with as he plows through history with tunnel vision and the scientist’s and engineer’s hand making strides one step, then failing to maximize potential. The reason is simple-reading.
    We are not very broad minded as a species. We may be smart at one thing, but even a genius will be dumb, or utterly confused pragmatically at something else. Allow me to exemplify based on your premise.

    We conquered the incredible challenge Jack Kennedy so boldly gave our scientists fifty years ago, but failed to utilize the achievement by manifesting any applicable human activity that we are burdened with here on Earth. Burdens that are life and planet threatening today. By reading science fiction, there is an unlimited resource of ideas, that even simply entertained could benefit mankind from all the endeavors and dollars poured into the moon program and space station. Lets take a very serious problem we have here on Earth that for all our intelligence we cannot solve – nuclear waste. Now from what I understand, the moon is a big wasteland – a dead rock. Why haven’t we brainchild a project to collect, transport, receive, and bury the stuff on the moon? It’s only 247,000 miles away. We could charge a bundle and NASA could pay for itself and do anything it wants—like maybe put hard core criminals up there so they could look back and see what they are missing. Or how about the Lunar University that advances medicine, chemistry, creative eco-systems, or just plain research not doable in our atmosphere? I won’t even wander into imaginative globe engineering, mining, or cryogenics that surely the dark, cold side of the moon offers.
    Basically, we know how to start most of our endeavors with good intentions in the name of advancing man’s knowledge, or offering democracy at our expense, but why do we fail to advance the accomplishment with pragmatic returns and viability so we don’t find ourselves at the mercy of the politician’s gavel?

  6. Gregg Weber says:

    Have commercial vehicles go to the ISS with supplies and people going beyond. This would have the same function as “the wheel” in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Keep it up by solor powered magnetic coils working of the Earth’s magnetic field to slowly nudge it higher when needed.
    Use this same solar powered magnetic coil propulsion for tugs to bring in satelites, like Hubble, for repair and upgrade.
    The problem with the Moon is the same with Antarctica, off limits to “exploitation”.
    The anticipated problems and lessons learned about the cost of immigration to Australia could be applied in either Antarctica or the Moon.

  7. Kyle Russell says:

    A space elevator would be handy right about now. Now if only we could make carbon nanotubes hundred of miles long…

  8. Richard M says:

    “And to think that NASA was looking to the moon again and then to Mars, at costs twice those of the shuttle and space station combined. President Obama was right to put an end to the manned space program for now.”

    Yes, yes, yes, it’s true that NASA has to work within a budget, unlike the glory days of Apollo when JFK and LBJ managed to have Congress write blank checks. And yes, it’s true that we can now get a quite a space bang for the buck – and far less human risk – using robotic exploration missions.

    But there are still things that robots cannot, or do nearly as effectively as humans. And Bush’s new Vision for Space Exploration and its planned lunar base didn’t have to be as expensive as it was turning out to be, nor does deep space exploration have to be so expensive either. In 1972 the U.S. unwisely decided to ditch a perfectly successful and tested heavy launch system in favor of the space shuttle, which turned out to cost far more in development and operations than expected, at greater risk, than it was billed as.

    We could learn from Nixon’s mistake, and do back into deep space at an affordable price by sticking with proven launch technology, rather than Mike Griffin’s mega-boosters to end all boosters. That’s hardly Obama’s fault; but one wishes he had asked harder questions about the quickest and cheapest way to get us back into deep space.

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