Tuesday, April 17, 2012

End of an Era



I got to see the shuttle atop the 747 transport aircraft back in 1990, when I was in basic training in the Air Force and the plane flew over Lackland AFB. My wife got to see it today, as she was in Washington, D.C. on a field trip with her class. Coincidentally, we both got to see the shuttle Discovery.

I am a huge supporter of manned space exploration, and it's one of the few things that breaks my normally libertarian sensibilities to say it's worth the expenditure of large amounts of public money, because the payback really is enormous, as opposed to the tens of thousands of ratholes Washington normally finds to pour the public purse down into. (For those who buy into the "robots can do it cheaper" argument, I invite you to read this article by Jared Keller in the Atlantic Monthly; it ain't just Tang and tinted sunglasses.)

So this is an enormously bittersweet time for me, as not only are we seeing the symbolic end of an era of American manned spaceflight (especially with the International Day of Manned Space Flight just 5 days behind us), but that it's a self-inflicted wound that the smallest smidgen of political will could have overcome. That said, I'm greatly heartened that SpaceX has been given approval to do a cargo run to the International Space Station. If we can't have both a private and a public space program, I'm glad that the government is at least getting out of the way of private industry on this one.

R.I.P. The United States Space Shuttle Program, 1976-2011
  • 134 missions, including construction of the International Space Station, the Magellan space probe, the Galileo space probe, the Ulysses space probe, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, deployment and servicing of dozens of satellites, and countless experiments in microgravity.
  • 14 lives lost. (Challenger's STS-51-L Crew) Commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair, and payload specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe; (Columbia's STS-107 Crew) Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; mission specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.
  • $209 billion over its lifetime of 35 years (approximately the same amount spent on the U.S. Forestry Service).
  • 3.5 millions pounds of payload lifted into low Earth orbit.
  • Almost 200,000 man-hours in space (1,323 days for various shuttles aloft).
  • 355 different astronauts participating in various Shuttle missions, including 49 women, and all hailing from 16 different countries.