On Friday July 8th, at 11:26AM NASA will launch the space shuttle Atlantis on STS-135, the final shuttle mission. It marks the end of an era that began on April 12, 1981 with the first flight of Columbia. 135 missions later, the United States’ fourth great space program, the successor to Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, has come to its end.
I was born between STS-31 and STS-41, the 35th and 36th shuttle missions, both flights of the shuttle Discovery. STS-31 was the mission to deploy the Hubble Telescope. I have never known anything but the shuttle program. Quite frankly, I have taken it for granted; I cannot imagine it being over. But after tomorrow the United States will no longer have the ability to put astronauts into orbit; we will be reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets for the foreseeable future. Not only is there no plan to replace the shuttle, but now Congress is preparing to cancel the Webb Telescope, which was to be the successor to the Hubble, taking us back even closer to the Big Bang than Hubble is capable of.
The shuttle is the most complicated machine ever built, consisting of over a million moving parts. The time and work involved in preparing a shuttle for launch is unimaginable. The shuttles have given us the Hubble and the International Space Station. And they have given us more technological and scientific breakthroughs than most of us will ever know.
In the early 1990s, Congress halted plans to build a supercollider in Texas, opening the door for Europe’s CERN to build the largest supercollider in the world. Cutting-edge particle physics is now done in Europe; European labs will be the ones to unlock the next great secrets of the fundamental building blocks of nature. Now the future of both American astronomy and cosmology, in the form of the Webb telescope, and spaceflight are in question. At a time when more and more countries are developing the means to reach space, we have focused our attention elsewhere.
It could be said that we have greater priorities to focus on; a space program is simply too expensive for our time. But we know that the Apollo program gave back far more to the economy than the government spent. We also know that many of the greatest discoveries in science were mere accidents, the results of exploration for exploration’s sake.
However, for my generation at least, I think there is a more important argument to be made. The shuttles represented one of America’s greatest achievements in its history. They were a symbol of national pride and an inspiration to us all. Now where will that inspiration come from? How inspired will we feel when it is Chinese astronauts, not American, who become the first humans to land on Mars? Will we stand idly by while the other nations of the world surpass us in technical capability?
NASA’s future remains uncertain, as does the future of the American scientific community as a whole. Our schools are failing to teach students basic science. Half of our graduate students in science and engineering are foreigners. And we have no vision for the future.
When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in 1961 declaring that, by the end of the decade, the United States would put a man on the Moon, we did not have the rockets to get there. We did not have a design for a lunar lander, never mind had we built one. We had not even yet put a man into space. My hope is that another President Kennedy will step forward and call on us to surpass what we think is possible.
But, in the meantime, you can watch Friday’s launch on NASA’s website here. And, if you wish, NASA has released an amazing documentary about the shuttle program, which can be watched here. I urge you to watch both; they mark the end of one of the finest periods in American history. They also mark the end of one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history.