I watched yesterday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis with mixed emotions. Despite all threats of bad weather, it made it off the ground and is now in orbit (over Canada at the time of this writing.)
As many of you no doubt know, it is the last ever mission for a space shuttle. Over. Done. Finite.
I remember watching the very first launch, Columbia (RIP) in 1981. Yes, I am that old but in my defense I was still in elementary school at the time. Despite its delays and terrible tragedies, NASA's shuttle program is an achievement unparalleled in the annals of space exploration. Where would we be without the shuttle? There would be no International Space Station. There would be no satellites or telescopes repaired while in orbit. While I know it is time, I am sad to see the shuttle fleet retired. In a small way, I feel like I'm losing a friend or at the very least, a constant.
What comes next is an exciting yet uncertain future. The role of hoisting humans and gear into space is gradually being turned over to corporate industry. This holds promise. Over the years, NASA has become a bloated bureacracy impeded by its own weight. Minds outside the NASA system can now innovate and move forward. Sir Richard Branson is already underway with such a project in Virgin Galactic. SpaceX, with its Dragon and various Falcon vehicles, is example of momentum shifting to the private sector in the movement of equipment and people into orbit. In time, these programs may be able to incorporate people from many different walks of life into space exploration. This will hopefully give the public at-large a greater sense of space as a common future for humanity. In my more grandiose musings, I can almost see a sort of Starfleet Academy where young (and why not old?) people will study both physically and academically to go into space, circumventing the need for military involvement.
But what of NASA? Even former Apollo astronauts like Armstrong and Lovell have been openly skeptical as to the future role of this federal agency. To hear the folks in Houston say it, NASA's going to be just fine. They've been given until 2016 to come up with a replacement for the shuttle program. The leaders in that race appear to be Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule and SNC's "Dream Chaser." NASA is also tauting their Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a spacecraft meant to take a manned crew to Mars, to asteroids, or even further than that or so they say.
Sorry. I'll believe it when I see it. NASA has accomplished great things in its time yet they also have a history of delays, cost overruns, and less-than-optimal work culture. How long have we talked about colonizing Mars? How long have we talked about moving outward into the galaxy? Granted, NASA has been hamstrung by budget cuts as more wordly concerns needed to take priority and for that very reason, the private sector may be the way to go.
I hope that NASA's right in their assessment of their situation. Likewise, I hope that the private start-ups are correct in that they can sublimate their enthusiasm and entrepreneurship into big results. We need to move forward into space. That much is certain to many of us. How we get there need no longer come from just one organization.
And for the four shuttles still with us and the two gone but not forgotten, rest easy. You've done your job well. I regret I never saw one of you launch.
By the way, Strange Horizons will be on vacation for a few days. See you on Friday.
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