As I write this, the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, is on her final mission to the ISS. Once she returns, she will be decommissioned and then put on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. She will be a museum piece.
To be fair, the Space Shuttles were pretty much museum pieces all ready. Their design was the result of a series of bad compromises, and the technology on which they are based is forty years old. And they proved considerably more expensive to operate than had been estimated – in 1972, NASA director James Fletcher promised a per launch cost of $50 million (around $250 million in 2011 dollars), but the actual cost was closer to $450 million per launch.
Yes, the Space Shuttle was an amazing feat of engineering, but it was a far from ideal spacecraft. We saw that with both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It was a hideously complex machine – perhaps overly so – and never met any of the promises made of it by NASA when it was proposed.
I’ve seen numerous complaints online that “the Space Age is now over”, or that people will no longer have the opportunity to fly in space. Er, no. The Space Age wasn’t over when Apollo finished – and there was a six-year gap between ASTP and the first Shuttle launch. And people’s chances of flying in space now are much the same as they were when the Shuttle was flying – almost close to zero. Unless they happen to have a handy $35 million to buy a seat on Soyuz.
So, please, no more nonsense about the sky falling on everyone’s heads because the Shuttle will no longer be flying. The US has lost a very visible, but not especially effective, means of getting astronauts into orbit. Within a couple of years, either SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be in operation, or NASA’s MPCV will be. Until then, astronauts will still be visiting the ISS. They will simply be doing so on Soyuz – as many all ready have been doing.
Meanwhile, NASA no longer has to spend billions keeping the Shuttle flying. Their budget has all ready been slashed, but at least now they’ll be able to redefine themselves as more than simply an organisation that supports Shuttle operations. It could even be argued that if the Shuttle had not existed, NASA might well by now have returned to the Moon, or visited a nearby asteroid, or perhaps even sent astronauts to Mars… Admittedly, the ISS would not exist in its present form. But at least we would not be have been trapped in Low Earth Orbit for the past forty years.
So no, the Space Age is not over. On the contrary, it may be about to begin properly after a thirty-year hiatus…