THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM HAS ENDED. Some say this represents an end: an end to US human spaceflight, an end to a 30 year legacy. I prefer to see it as a beginning: the start of low earth orbit as commonplace, the start of the commercial era of space. For over 50 years now, space has been the provenance of governments. Now it’s time for private entities to show us that it is easy, and for NASA to move into the next era.
There are many who are upset over the end of the Space Transportation System (STS) program. We can debate the politics, lament what is past, or get angry over the decisions that have been made, or we can channel that energy into moving forward. Yes, many people are losing their jobs right now, and this is sad because there is so much still to do. The Space Launch System (SLS) program continues to be stuck in limbo, and as a result there are a lot of people who have the skills needed for SLS but are being laid off. The commercial players in the future of space are hiring, but definitely not everyone being laid off, and in many cases not in the same physical locations. This transition period is going to be very hard, but we need to look forwards, and not back.
One of the many things that NASA is good at is solving the difficult problems. We all know their resume: they’ve put men and women in space, on the moon, and they’ve built a home and laboratory 240 miles above us. They have gone from the Cold War mentality of beating the Russians at all costs to working together with them to launch and assemble the pieces of the International Space Station. But the STS only went as far as low earth orbit (LEO): NASA has sent vehicles to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. Voyager 1 is now over 17 billion kilometers from Earth (or more than 116 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) and still receiving and transmitting data! And they keep sending them out: the Juno mission to Jupiter will launch August 5th, and the Curiosity rover (the Mars Science Laboratory) will launch later this fall. NASA continues to look to the future, including landing humans on asteroids and getting them back to the Moon and to Mars.
These are the hard problems that NASA should be working on, and we must continue to fund this exploration work. But LEO is no longer a hard problem. The STS is complex and expensive, in part because it was so novel when it started, but also because the orbiter is a compromise vehicle: it is designed to carry both 7 people and up to 26 tons of cargo to LEO. These are two completely different types of cargo, and very difficult to launch together. But if we launch them separately, it is much easier, and much less expensive. We know we can get cargo to LEO much less expensive on expendable vehicles like Atlas, and soon on commercial vehicles like SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 and Boeing‘s CST-100 as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. And SLS will take what we have learned from STS and become a launch vehicle capable of taking a payload up to 130 tons to low earth orbit! Getting people to LEO is simpler too using a capsule, rather than an orbiter. The Russians do it with Soyuz, we’re developing the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and companies such as SpaceX are developing Dragon and other vehicles. Where once we had only NASA and Roscomos, we now have competition both for the launch vehicles and crew vehicles. Should we not celebrate these developments?
So where does that leave us? Space exploration is important. We have to keep sending vehicles out and figuring out how the universe works. We need to explore the other planets, both within our solar system and beyond, because we cannot understand our own without doing that. We need to continue to launch observatories, such as Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, SDO, and JWST, because our own atmosphere hampers our ability to see all that there is to see. And above all, the results of these endeavors must be shared with the world in an open and collaborative manner. It is up to all of us to make sure that our representatives in government support this work. If nothing else, this is what each of us can do to further space exploration. However, there is a reason I have provided so many links in this post. Read about what we are doing, and look at the results. What we have accomplished so far is amazing, and the best is still coming.
At the same time, we must continue to expand our nearby capabilities outside Earth’s atmosphere. The future craft that will carry people to our nearest neighbors and beyond will need to be launched from there by necessity, because the first 200 miles from Earth requires the most power. But now that there is competition, the work has to be shared by both the governmental and commercial entities. The STS has laid the groundwork for this, and shown what can be done. It has given us a staging area in LEO. It has fostered international collaboration in space exploration. Celebrate this, and celebrate its end, but we must not allow ourselves to wallow in sadness for the end of the program. It is but one small step beyond this little rock we call Earth. Let’s take the next step.