The Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off Friday for what is the last time. When it returns the four astronauts on board to Earth it will be the end of more than four decades of manned spaceflight by the United States.
For me, and for many other space nuts it will be a sad day.
To me the U.S. manned spaceflight program is a case study in missed opportunities. We failed to follow up on the success of Apollo with additional missions to the moon and a moon base. We failed to move past the shuttle to a truly reusable single-stage-to-orbit space vehicle.
After the Challenger disaster NASA, or at least the politicians, became horribly risk-averse, there was a complete unwillingness to acknowledge that as tragic as the loss of those seven astronauts was, it was the cost of doing business. In some ways our successes in space came too cheaply. In Apollo the only lives lost were on the ground, even the disaster of Apollo 13 was in some ways a triumph for the ground crews. Lost to the public in all this was the realization that space is the harshest environment in which man has ever attempted to operate. The slightest mistake means death, and possibly not just for the astronaut who made the mistake, but for the entire crew. In an environment such as this we will lose people. That we’ve lost the few we have is really on the order of a minor miracle.
Moreover, those who volunteer to go to space know the risks, accept them willingly, even eagerly, and believe in what we’re doing.
A long time ago the dean of science fiction writers Robert A. Heinlein said “Earth is too small and fragile a basket to keep all our eggs in.”
I agree. Most space enthusiasts do.
NASA, or at least the politicians, came to believe the American public would not accept casualties in pursuit of space. It’s entirely possible they’re right. I don’t believe we would accept huge casualties in pursuit of putting satellites in orbit or doing high-school science experiments.
In pursuit of a moon base or a manned mission to Mars? Absolutely. I think you could get the imagination of the American people behind that easily. And I think we would be willing to accept casualties in that endeavor.
We need to understand, as another science fiction author and one time space advisor to President Ronald Reagan, Dr. Jerry Pournelle said “Out there (in space) it’s raining soup, and down here we don’t even have bowls.”
From the nearly unlimited solar power to the huge quantity of minerals available in the asteroid belt the possibilities for economic benefit are nearly endless. Keep in mind the technology to beam power back to Earth from orbiting power satellites has been tested on a small scale and works. Keep in mind as well, one mid-sized nickle-iron asteroid has enough iron to supply the Earth’s needs for years, and there are likely far rarer metals available in quantities which would beggar the imagination down here.
You want the Earth to be a park with pristine air and water? Get behind space, if we could move manufacturing into orbit we wouldn’t need to pollute. Want solar power instead of coal plants? Put it in orbit where the sun always shines and use microwaves to beam the power to Earth.
Space really is the “Final Frontier” and an endless one. The American people are the descendants of explorers and adventurers, that spirit has never really left us. All that’s required is for a politician with the will and the guts to take his case to the people and fire up our imaginations.
All IMHO, of course.
(Patrick Richardson is the managing editor of the Columbus Advocate and the Baxter Springs News. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.)