STS-135, final mission patch. Image Source: Wiki.
Today, the Space Shuttle Atlantis makes its final run up to the International Space Station. This is NASA's last Space Shuttle launch, and the end of the entire program, which I have blogged about here and here; and there is a related post here. As I noted in those posts, this marks the end of a thirty-five-year vision about space exploration that emerged after the Apollo moon missions.
Lunar landing conspiracy theorists love to parrot out the question, 'why were no more astronauts sent to the moon?' No, it's not because the moon landings 'never happened.' On 9 September 2007, 77-year old Buzz Aldrin punched moon landing conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel in the face. Sibrel had just told Aldrin that he had lied about setting foot on the lunar surface.
Why did NASA not go back to the moon? The answer: after its lunar missions, NASA changed its focus to concentrate on the International Space Station for thirty-five years. The Shuttles were developed to service the ISS and other incredible tools like the Hubble space telescope, a beautiful instrument that has vastly increased our understanding of the heavens over the past two decades. The building of the International Space Station, a grand and immensely expensive enterprise, never became the combined space hub, space lab, space mall, space hotel and spaceport that engineers dreamed of and filmmakers depicted.
The wildest hopes for the ISS saw it becoming a waypost, a jumping-off point for much more extensive exploration of the moon and planets. It was supposed to provide the foundation for deep space exploration, first by conducting experiments on plants and animals to see how they would survive and reproduce in space; these experiments would enable us to see whether we could take terraforming terrariums and aquariums on space flights that might last centuries. This idea was popular in the early 1970s; it is evident in a movie like 1972's Silent Running. The ISS was to be a space lab first, and over decades it was supposed to become a refueling hub and space garage, like the one briefly pictured in the 1986 film Aliens. Over the longest of terms, the ISS conceivably could allow spaceships to be constructed in space, and take off from space. This would allow a work-around for the problems with heavy-lift capability needed by spaceships to counter the pull of Earth's gravity on take-off.
The lost Challenger crew from STS-51 in November 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair. Image Source: Wiki.
It's important to understand how small-minded these conspiracies about the moon landings are. NASA's efforts to contribute to the ISS with the Space Shuttle program came at the loss of two shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), and the deaths of two teams of astronauts. Granted, this was something that critics had warned as NASA turned to Shuttles to service the ISS. There is a good critical retrospective of one of Gregg Easterbrook's Shuttle critiques this week at The Space Review; but that commentary agrees with part of his assessment, made back in 1980:
Easterbrook unfortunately got that part right. Even so, the Shuttles were a milestone in manned space exploration. The moon landing conspiracies disrespect that milestone. They disrespect the members of the Apollo missions, and they disrespect the lost members of the Shuttle missions. Of Challenger: Ellison S. Onizuka; Sharon Christa McAuliffe; Greg Jarvis; Judy Resnik; Michael J. Smith; Dick Scobee; and Ron McNair. And Columbia: Rick D. Husband; William C. McCool; Michael P. Anderson; Ilan Ramon; Kalpana Chawla; David M. Brown; and Laurel Clark. There is footage of the accidents here and here.There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle cannot. A rocket can be permitted to fail. What if a billion dollar spaceship wipes out on a “routine” mission “commuting” to space with some puny little satellite? ... Would the public stand to lose a quarter of the fleet in a single day? Would it fork over another billion dollars to build a replacement? Would it stand for spending millions to train astronauts to be truck drivers, only to lose truck and drivers both? The prospect makes the old rockets seem kind of nice. One of the old throw-away jobs could go haywire, and spiral down into the ocean off the Bahamas, and everybody would feel miserable and millions would be wasted and everybody would go back to work. Lost it, dammit—but then nobody ever expected it back. ... [But with the Shuttles, h]ere’s the plan. Suppose one of the solid-fueled boosters fails. The plan is, you die.
The lost Colombia crew from STS-107 in October 2001. From left to right are Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialist Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool,and Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Image Source: Wiki.
Depending on politics and budgets, NASA now turns to sending explorers to deep space, Mars (Mars Society president Robert Zubrin has just released an anniversary edition of his book, The Case for Mars, reviewed here), and asteroids. NASA will work with private companies' support. We can hope that this is the start of a new period of space exploration. Perhaps, by 2050, the era that lies before us will have produced results that cannot be doubted.
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