Monday, May 16, 2011

Today the Space Shuttle, Tomorrow... Oblivion?

Born at the tail end of the 1970's, I've always lived in a world where man has set foot on the moon; where space wasn't a dream, it was a reality. The space race was something that we'd already won. There was no doubt that the United States would be the leader in space exploration.

The Space Shuttle program held the promise of reusable, reliable and frequent access to exploring the final frontier. And it looked cool. If you had to choose between a space capsule on top of a rocket and a space shuttle, which would you choose? Crash land in the ocean or land your spaceship on a runway? Exactly.

My earliest memories of our space program are framed prints from the first launch on the first mission hanging on my uncle's wall. Something just like this:

STS-1 Launch
NASA launches STS-1 on April 12, 1981 from Pad 39A. Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen are the first astronauts to man a maiden test flight. They complete 37 orbits and spend 54 hours in space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo courtesy NASA.
In spite of the collective badassery of the Space Shuttle I've just laid out, the only real memories I have are the disasters. I watched Challenger break apart 73 seconds after lift-off from my grandparents living room. Too young to comprehend the magnitude and loss of life, I responded with a childish 'how cool'. The ignorance of innocence.

I watched Columbia break up on re-entry on February 1, 2003. The national news broke in to whatever Saturday Morning cartoon I was wasting time watching and I didn't leave the TV for hours.

NASA launches STS-51-L on January 28, 1986 from Pad 39B. Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members.
I have to admit, it was only recently that I really did any research on the shuttle program. For the most part, I blindly paid attention to shuttle missions. In my world, the shuttles launched, did great work, advanced our knowledge of outer space, prepared us going to Mars and all was well with the world.

A few weeks ago I started collecting a series of launch photographs to document the history of manned space flight in honor of shuttle mission STS-134, originally planned for April 29, 2011. As I researched the history of manned space flight, the Wikipedia effect drew me deeper into the web of knowledge. One article lead me to five lead me to twenty. RockMelt's View Later feature is an amazing thing!

In the early stages of my reading I began to formulate this blog post. With little fact and lots of opinion, I planned to extol the wonders of the space shuttle and condemning their retirement, declaring it the end of American manned space flight.

Atlantis Clears the Tower
Morgan and I were lucky enough to catch the launch of STS-132 on May 14, 2010 when we were in FLA for our wedding. We watched Atlantis streak through the sky from a Disney Transportation Bus and were no where near this close. Photo © Tony Hoffman.
On the back end of it, well, I definitely need to tone down my rhetoric, because some of the stuff I learned really surprised me. Did you know the shuttle program started before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon? Okay, I've over simplified the truth for effect, but, yeah, I wasn't prepared for that either.

To clear up my over simplification, the National Aeronautics and Space Council began serious investigation the shuttle concept in 1969. Based on their findings, Richard M. Nixon decided to actively pursue a shuttle shuttle and by the mid-1970's our entire space program was focused on developing it. Since the beginning of the program, politics and budgets have been the leading factor in it's development, usage and safety.

Over the years it was budget, not exploration, that dictated how we traveled into space. Both shuttle disasters were the result of poor communication, if not out right negligence, and directly connected to the need to keep the shuttles running on schedule and on budget. Way to go bureaucracy!

Endeavour Glows On The Eve Of Her 1st Launch Attempt
Endeavour on launch pad 39A on Thursday, April 28, 2011. This launch attempt was scrubbed due to problems with two heaters on one of the orbiter's auxiliary power units and is now set to launch Monday, May 16, 2011 at 8:56 am. Photo © Mike Killian.
Now, I'm not prepared to say the Shuttle program was a total waste, the child inside of me will never be willing to admit to that. However as an adult, I can see how it hasn't been the most successful use of resources. I'll make another over simplification: it took us less than ten years to reach the moon and all we've done for the past thirty years is fly around in circles above the Earth.

Since funding for the Constellation program has been cut from budget, it seems like we're going to be spending a lot of time watching the Russians - and maybe the Chinese - sending people into space. I guess it's back to looking up to the stars wondering if, not when, we'll reach them.

As we prepare to today's shuttle launch, I'll say good luck and godspeed to the crew of  Endeavour. If it was only as easy as "Second star to the right - and straight on till morning."

And yes, I'll still be counting down some of the most historic launches in manned space flight on my Tumblr.

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