Space Shuttle Atlantis: happy landing, and out with a whimper

Among the many things said and written about the ending of the American space shuttle program, one thing we are not likely to hear any time soon is the last word. In short, it’s going to require the perspective of history, probably fifty years, before the impact of the space shuttle program – operating, then not operating – will be understood in the broad context of human space exploration.

Those things that can be said now, have been said, endlessly. I don’t pretend that among the few thoughts offered here there is anything new. It’s just that, like so many people, I grew up with the Apollo space program that put Man on the Moon, and the shuttle program that put up a permanent station in space. It seemed reasonable to believe that humans venturing into space were just part of the natural progress of the world.

Then over the years I learned something: Space exploration is roughly two-thirds politics. (I already knew there is nothing very natural about politics.)

It’s two-thirds politics because somebody has to pay for space exploration. Space exploration, especially manned space exploration is, to no surprise, very expensive. It is not only expensive but in all honesty with manned space exploration there is relatively little payback. It is so expensive and unprofitable that for the most part only governments have the money for it – if they have the money for it at all. That’s where the politics comes in. Space exploration from the beginning had to compete with other uses of government money. Typically a relatively large chunk was available for military space projects, almost all unmanned. This is not only true for the U.S. but also China and Russia. The non-military chunk of money depended on general budget allocations, which in turn depended on the political clout of the principle contractors that benefited from space exploration. This was and is a natural field for political sensitivity to economic conditions, bureaucratic infighting, and geopolitics.

I also came to realize that space exploration isn’t all about science and even less about advancing the story of mankind; except, of course, when it suits the narrative. That narrative is also for the most part political: The Soviets beat the Americans into orbit. It was a black eye for America. So America launches all-out man on the Moon project. Then the Soviets spend themselves into catastrophe trying to keep up. That’s a narrative. Occasionally the narrative is about the science, as for example the magnificent Cassini-Huygens space probes to the Saturn system. Manned space flight, however, was generally encased in a politicized narrative.

This leads to the snafu known as the American space shuttle program. I won’t repeat the history here, except to say that the shuttle program was an American project envisioned as an economical way to build and supply the International Space Station (ISS). It turned out to be adequate for building and supplying the space station, however it was anything but economical. It also blew up twice, killing people in dreadfully spectacular fashion. For those who defend the shuttle program, I have sympathy, but the fact is the shuttle program was ended years ago by the Bush administration because its thirty year old technology cost too much to operate. Now the ISS is supplied by rockets and other equally hoary, but cheaper, Soyuz technology of the Russians. This is such a rich irony considering the original political narrative.

For now human exploration of space is caught in the cracks between tight money in national budgets, the risk and cost of hurling people into space, the ambitious but nascent nationalism of the Chinese space program, and perhaps the desuetude of the world’s populations about space (it’s been boring for quite a while). What used to be front page drama (good and bad) is now part of the usual squabbling, small-beer routine of national politics – and not just in the United States.

With few exceptions, most nations have come to the conclusion that unmanned space exploration (robotic probes) does more for less. This has always been true and those nations constrained by finances and/or complex politics have eschewed manned projects for a long time. The exceptions have been the Russians for a while, the Americans, and the International Space Station, which though primarily American and Russian, has many participating countries, and now the Chinese.

The Chinese space program has focused on manned space flight almost exclusively. Publicly announced plans include a Chinese space station and a Chinese presence on the Moon. Whether the Chinese can accomplish this in the roughly twenty year time frame they announced is an open question. If they can do it, and so far it looks like they can, it may mean the rejuvenation of the ‘space race.’ Interestingly, however, their plans have so far failed to move the Americans, Europeans or Japanese toward any kind of counter-program. In some respects, the politics of space are obviously not what they used to be.

Meanwhile, private enterprise is getting into space, literally and figuratively. Notice, however, that the efforts are almost exclusively led by a club of people who formerly worked for the American space agency NASA or its contractors. Notice too that the companies run by these people are very small, barely equal to the payroll of a single NASA department. When big corporations get into the mix, then perhaps that will be a sign of potential profits. Until then, commercially it seems like a billionaire’s hobby club. That’s okay, but hard to believe it is leading any time soon to large numbers of people enjoying a vacation in space (or some such thing).

Until the day it becomes possible to ship bulk freight – including people – to and from space at rates within spitting distance of earthside shipping, the true habitation of space, even near-space, just isn’t going to happen. So far that technology eludes us. There is, in fact, a huge gulf between the grand projects (manned trips to Mars, a Moon settlement) and the ability to keep even the ISS usefully in orbit. I put it this way: The infrastructure for settlement and exploration of space is still on the ground, on Earth. Until a significant part of that infrastructure exists in space, outside Earth’s gravity well, the space adventure will continue to be hobbled by expense and unprofitability.

So I guess from my perspective, the final flight of the American shuttle program, while a symbol of almost catastrophically poor planning on the part of the Americans, is mostly indicative of a long transition period in the history of humanity in space. It will be a period – probably decades – where economics and domestic politics will usually trump grand accomplishments. Perhaps the Chinese can pull off something dramatic, but even the Chinese will need to find new technologies to make their achievements more than a one-off PR coup. The search for those technologies is likely to be something of a slog, hampered all the way by all the above mentioned economic and political factors. Yes, for those of us who grew up with the Apollo program and the promise of the International Space Station, this is a let-down. Let us hope that the unmanned scientific exploration of space continues to provide the few bright beacons of discovery that keep our interests up.

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