Space shuttles flew for more than 30 years. For everyone from the oldest baby boomers to the youngest, it has long represented the United States in space. What’s next? BoomerCafé co-founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs’s “day job” is as a correspondent for HDNet television’s weekly program World Report. And for the last six years, covering space has been part of that job. In this essay, he gives us an insider’s look at where the U.S. is headed next.
A lot of Americans have strong opinions about the end of the shuttle program. Which means, when the last shuttle has touched down and its wheels have turned for the last time, there will surely be debate about the space program. Is this the end of our best days in space, or just a transition? My answer is, transition. Here’s why:
- One of the reasons NASA is retiring the space shuttle is to put the money that has been spent going into low earth orbit into new technologies to get us where we want to go next. Our spacecraft have been propelled primarily by the same technology for more than 40 years. If we want to go the distance in the 21st Century — back to the moon, to Mars, to an asteroid — we need new materials, new fuels; the idea that intrigues me the most is about beaming energy up from the ground.
- The space industry won’t be concentrated any more at NASA, but it has new horizons which probably will result in more innovation than we’ve seen in a long time, which means more spin-offs to make our daily lives better. It will absorb at least some of the “rocket scientists” who are leaving NASA. Private companies already are developing spacecraft to take our astronauts to and from the space station so that we don’t have to forever rely, as we shall for the next few years, on the Russians. The only difference from how we’ve built spacecraft in the past is, they’ll take the financial risk; NASA will just pay them to fly the missions. Critics fear sloppy standards, but private enterprise always has been behind American spacecraft; NASA doesn’t have much more than a screwdriver and a wrench in its inventory. Anyway, NASA won’t certify a ship unless it satisfies NASA’s standards.
Recently in Washington, I asked NASA’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden, why we’re not rushing back to the moon. His answer was, no matter who gets to the moon next, they’ll find that there already are six flags planted there, and they’re all ours.
There certainly will be some brain drain. Some experts think that could be fatal to our future in space. But recently I also interviewed Scott Carpenter, America’s fourth man in space, only the second to go orbital, after John Glenn. Since he’s been around since Day One and seen gaps in the past between one program and another, I asked him about all these fears and his answer was, “We’ll recover. There’ll be a time when we progress at a slower rate but we’ll recover.” I then asked how we’ll do that and he said, “Re-invigorate the national goal of flying to Mars.” When I asked why that’s important, he answered with the kind of pioneer spirit that got us to where we are: “Because it is inevitable that we will go there. That’s what humans do.”
Charlie Bolden’s predecessor running NASA, Michael Griffin, used to evangelize that the other over-arching argument to push deeper into space is that throughout history, the nations that put their men and money into ships that sailed across uncharted oceans became the leading nations of their times. Not to mention beneficiaries of the riches with which those ships came home.
We don’t know what’s ahead, but think about this: Alan Shepard became the first American in space just over fifty years ago, when even the oldest of us baby boomers were just teenagers. He lifted off in a capsule that was all of 11-1/2 feet high and just over six feet across. It weighed about five thousand pounds. He traveled just over 300 miles, reaching an apogee of 116 miles and a speed of about 5,000 mph. The whole sub-orbital flight lasted less than sixteen minutes, from liftoff to splashdown in the Atlantic. Compare those numbers to the space shuttle.
My point is, no one then could even imagine a spaceship that lifted off like a rocket and landed like an airplane … let alone all the byproducts of the space age that we use in our everyday lives. Maybe I should be worried about where we’re headed now. But I’m not.