So, farewell, Space Shuttle. However, don’t expect me to get all teary-eyed and nostalgic for the End of an Era in space exploration. Unlike most people, it seems, to judge from the eulogies on Facebook and so on and so forth, I think (and have always thunk) that the Space Shuttle was a flying white elephant, a vastly expensive and desperately dangerous waste of time, as eloquently detailed in this article from the Daily Torygraph.
Before you accuse me of being a soulless and unromantic drone devoid of all spirit of conquest and adventure – well, it’s worse than that. The Apollo mission, for all the political grandstanding of its engenderment, actually got us somewhere. What I feel is not some puritanical desire to scold people for lack of thrift – but frustration at what seems to have been a grand frittering-away in lesser distractions of opportunities for greatness. We should have been on Mars by now. There should have been people walking the asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s a sad fact that nobody has visited the Moon — or even left low-Earth orbit — since Deep Purple was in the hit parade. The Apollonian advantage has been lost, squandered in a flying bus that orbited the Earth in
ever-decreasing circles many times but never went anywhere else. And so what? Comsats do that all the time, much more efficiently – launched by countless unmanned missions from Russia, ESA, China, Japan, Israel, India, and — heavens to Betsy — even Iran.
Oh, yes, the Space Station, that flying camel designed by a committee of camels, a
pork barrel destination created largely to justify the Space Shuttle’s existence, but whose purpose has never been clearly defined. Science? Please correct me if I am wrong, but I do not know of a single result that couldn’t be carried out except on the Space Station that justifies the trouble and expense; nor any result of the epochal significance required to return even a farthing of it. We once dreamed that the Space Station might be a useful place to build manned, interplanetary craft without having to overcome Earth’s gravity well. But what we got were a few crystals, plants growing upside down and school projects done in space because, hey, it was there. It’s desperately, bitterly ironic that the only way to get to the Space Station now is through much cheaper, more reliable Soyuz spacecraft, and to resupply it through (unmanned) Progress space vehicles.
All the while, our knowledge of space has increased almost beyond measure, thanks to a plethora of unmanned spacecraft such as the Voyagers – still sending back useful information from deep space; space telescopes of various sorts (and before you say ‘Hubble’, most such instruments are launched in unmanned vehicles); and, increasingly, powerful telescopes based on the ground. And yet NASA’s budget for astrophysics — an activity that probably gets more scientific bang for the buck than anything else the agency does in space — is to be constrained such that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – the successor to Hubble – might take many years to get off the ground, and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) — designed to hunt for exoplanets and look into ‘dark energy’ — might be booted into the long grass indefinitely. The costs of such missions are enormous – much more so than originally budgeted – but somehow nobody rates the possible scientific payoff of such missions against the eye-watering cost of the Shuttle missions, whose scientific achievements were negligible.
I close with a telling comparison. On 24 January, 1986, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Uranus, making incredible discoveries about that hitherto mysterious planet and its system of moons. The Voyagers, between them, would reveal much of what we now know about the outer Solar System, so much so that it’s hard to appreciate our ignorance about it from pre-Voyager days. The Voyager mission continues – and nobody died. On 28 January, just four days later, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded not long after lift-off, taking all hands, essentially for a mess of pottage.