Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

End of an Era: Discovery's Last Launch Today

NASA Tribute to Discovery with the insignia of all her missions.  Image Source: Wiki.

A spacecraft that has been vitally important to the history of human exploration is about to be retired.  Up to the last minute, it wasn't clear if the Space Shuttle Discovery would make her launch today.  First flown in 1984, this will be her 39th and final mission.  The Shuttle retires amid discussion that NASA's space program is giving way to private space firms, such as Elon Musk's SpaceX.  According to The Space Review, other companies in the running for significant commercial participation in the American space program are Boeing, Orbital Sciences Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Until commercial firms can cover shuttle duties around 2016, NASA will rely on the Russians to take them back and forth to the International Space Station:
“NASA has contracted seats on Russian Soyuz capsules,” said Katherine Trinidad, a spokeswoman for NASA. “We will work with our Russian counterparts to ensure the safe transport of our astronauts to and from the International Space station until we have safe, reliable commercial vehicles.”
Discovery waiting on the launch pad for her final flight. Image Source: NASA.

According to The Space Review, an administrator from NASA confirmed this is a big turning point for the American space program.  NASA is no longer interested in heavy lifting to lower earth orbit, as it has been for the past 25 years.  It is now focussing on space exploration:
[A]dministrator Charles Bolden witnessed a test firing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center last week of the AJ-26 engines that will power Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket.

Bolden also made ... a brief speech Wednesday morning where he again emphasized the importance of, and NASA’s commitment to, commercial crew providers. “We cannot survive without you,” he said. “I can’t tell you any stronger. We are big fans of commercial, we are huge fans of commercial space.”

“When I retire the space shuttle… that’s it for NASA access to low Earth orbit,” he said. NASA would not compete with commercial providers after that for transporting crews to low Earth orbit, despite Congress authorizing development of the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as a government alternative to commercial providers. “There’s got to be two people in the ring to have a fight. I’m not in the ring for access to low Earth orbit,” he said. “We explore.”

... For NASA, that tipping point has long since passed,” he said. “We are irrevocably, irretrievably, irreconcilably beyond the tipping point. We can’t turn around and go back.”
So there you have it.  The end of an era.  The Space Shuttles began operational flights in 1982.  In the mid-1980s, the development of the Shuttles was part of the big turn toward launching probes, satellites and space telescopes like Hubble (launched 1990).  Marred by the tragic disasters of Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), as the thirty year program winds down, only Discovery, Atlantis (tentative final flight due 28 June 2011) and Endeavour remain (final flight due 19 April 2011).  In other words, general Space Shuttle retirement is due by the middle of this year at the latest.

The Shuttle program was also critical in the building the International Space Station (which became an interim priority rather than returning to the moon or travelling to Mars).  While extremely valuable research has been done, the ISS seems to have settled to a plateau in terms of appealing to the public.  Also, at a cost of roughly EUR 100 billion, the ISS is the most expensive object ever built. Construction began in 1998 and is scheduled for completion in 2011. It never became the huge waystation complex that was envisioned in pop culture.

A NASA video about the ISS, posted in 2010, which refers to the Space Shuttles as indispensable. Video Source: Youtube.

The original idea of a space station in Earth orbit was very appealing and appeared in important space films. You may recall James Cameron's movie Aliens from 1986, which has opening scenes inside a large international space station circling the Earth.  An earlier concept showed a pretty ritzy space station used as a jumping off point for space travel in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Ironically, there was an international space station orbiting Earth by 2001. But it sure didn't have a Hilton hotel in it, with astro-stewardesses with pink Jackie-O suits.

From 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968: MGM/Warner). Video Source: Youtube.

From 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968: MGM/Warner). Video Source: Youtube.

Kubrick's 1968 vision of what a 2001 international space station would look like, serviced by a space shuttle similar to the ones that were later developed. There was optimism and high expectations about how much we would accomplish, even when working together.

Space Station servicing various spacecraft in Aliens (1986: Brandywine/SLM/Twentieth Century Fox).

As for the shift to commercial developers for heavy space hauling, that too reminds me of the whole Alien mythology, where 'the Company,' Weyland-Yutani Corp., is a bigger antagonist in the series than the aliens themselves.  In the Alien franchise, space privatization was depicted as nefarious, corrupt and gritty.  In the Mars trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson similarly envisioned corporations in space as competitive, domineering, tricky and out of touch.

The decal of the last Discovery flight is below. There is still one or possibly two more Shuttle flights to come. The next (likely last) Shuttle flight in the program, flown by the Shuttle Endeavour, is headed by Gabrielle Giffords' husband Mark E. Kelly. I have blogged about Gabrielle Giffords here.

The patch for the final mission. Image Source: Wiki.

Addendum: Thanks to J. for sending me the link to the video below of the shuttle taking off, as viewed from a passing airplane.  Our tech isn't at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but our reality is still fascinating.

Video Source: Youtube.

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