As a child and a science-fiction fan, I was swept up in the romanticism of the Shuttle, and recall vividly watching Columbia blast off on TV, back in 81. With it’s futuristic plane like design, it promised to usher in a new era of easy access to space.
Unfortunately, the Shuttle turned out to be a bit of a dud.
It was supposed to be so many things: cheap to run, reusable and safer.
It turned out to be too heavy, required a long and complex tear-down between launches, and if anything went wrong then there was little chance for it’s crew to escape.
The worst part is that just as NASA was relaxing it’s rules and allowing civilians to fly, the first such passenger was lost with the Challenger, which I also vividly recall seeing on the TV one morning. This incident turned public opinion against the program and set back civilian participation in space exploration by years, at least in the US.
Fast forward twenty years and the NASA manned space programme is all but a memory. Repeated attempts to construct a replacement for the aging workhorse either got canned by a change of Administration or Congress cut the budget to ribbons to pay for tax cuts, bank bailouts or just plain pork barrel projects.
All the while, the expensive Shuttle fleet has eaten away at what was left of NASA’s resources.
With the retirement of the Shuttle, the future is finally looking a little more futuristic with the private sector finally being invited to participate, now that there’s no other option.
It turned out that there really was a demand for civilian space travel, as demonstrated by the Space Station “holiday” packages that the Russians pioneered. Virgin Galactic is on the scene now, albeit offering what is little more than a very tall roller-coaster ride. More importantly, companies like Space X are offering genuinely cheaper and safer access to space (though nothing currently flying in space is prettier than the Shuttle).
At least NASA’s unmanned space program is still leading the way with projects like Dawn and the incredible Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers… though I have to wonder how much longer it will be before Congress kills that off too…