Fri
Jul 8 2011 5:04pm

I Might Never Fly in Space

This morning, adhering to its scheduled launch time almost exactly, the space shuttle Atlantis rocketed into orbit for the last time. This is not only the final flight for Atlantis but also the final flight of the space shuttle program, as we know it. Since 1981, the Space Shuttle fleet has served as America’s primary method of exploring space on a tactile, personal level. A lot of speculation has been written about what will take its place. From the ill-fated Constellation Program, to numerous talks of unmanned craft, the future of the America’s space vehicle options are unclear. After all, there’s an International Space Station up there and we can’t very well walk there!

And while many discuss the politics and economics surrounding this definitive end of an era, I’d like to briefly share what 30 years of the Space Shuttle has meant to me, and maybe what it has meant to you too.

In 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia was launched for the first time. I was also born in 1981, so my memories of that first launch are a little hazy. However as a kid, I subscribed to a now-defunct magazine called Final Frontier, which was essentially a youth version of Omni. (Think Highlights or Ranger Rick only with space facts.) In the days before blogs, this magazine was an invaluable resource. It told me when Voyager 2 was going to reach Neptune, various proposals for a Mars mission, and retrospectives on the Apollo and Vostock programs. Most importantly though, were the up-to-date profiles of every single shuttle mission including the crewmembers, the payload, the purpose of the mission and all the scheduled launch times. This section even told you when and where one could potentially see the Shuttle in the night sky either with a telescope or the naked eye.

On one particular Endeavour mission, my father and I got up on the roof of our Arizona home to see if we could spot the little speck ambling across the stars. My father is a photographer, so instead of a proper telescope, we peered through one of his particularly long camera lenses. Better than nothing. Also, my father planted in my head the bizarre idea that we should send the crew of Endeavour some kind of message. At that time, I knew morse code, which like my ability to read Latin, is something that has faded away in my thirty years on planet Earth. Anyway, Dad suggested we send the mission number of Endeavour to them via morse code. Our delivery method of this message? One of my Dad’s camera flashes.

I couldn’t have been much older than eleven or twelve, so I should have probably known that there was no way the light from our little flash could possible reach the astronauts on the shuttle. And even if through some miracle, our light message was transported up to them, they would have to be looking out the window directly at our home to see it. But, I memorized how to represent STS and then whatever the number of the mission was in morse code all the same. At some point, just as Final Frontier and the radio had promised, a little speck appeared through Dad’s camera lens and I stood up, and flashed away.

The point isn’t whether the astronauts saw it. The point is that I wanted to be a part of it. Like a lot of kids, I had brief flirtation with the idea of being an astronaut, but the space program, and the shuttle in particular had a different effect on me. Like so many of us, the space shuttle cheered me up about life. Here was this practical, reasonable space truck, which people used to go up and down from the Earth the same way my family drove to pick up groceries. It was something real and tangible and it always felt like a step towards the future I loved so much in the books I read and the TV shows I liked. It reminded me that human beings were capable of really amazing things. If the space shuttle could continue on even after something as devastating as Challenger, what was I complaining about? Hormones? The onset of total and complete awkwardness? There were bigger fish to fry! If Sally Ride could do something great with her life, why not me?

I think space travel is like that for a lot of us, and the reason why I’m personally saddened by the end of the Space Shuttle program is because it’s been a rock of inspiration for my entire life. The whole time I’ve been around, the shuttle has been doing its thing. I know something will replace it, or at least I have to tell myself that. Because as a kid, it seemed to that I would definitely someday fly in space. And I still want to. More than ever.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

17 comments
Fredrik Coulter
1. fcoulter
The end of the Space Shuttle program (and probably the end of the United States as a manned space exploring nation) forced me to get off my butt and do something I had planned on doing for a while. I just sent my money to the National Space Society - www.nss.org. The future of man in space may not include speaking english, but it's worth a shot.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Allowing the manned space program to come to this state (done with no replacement) is a travesty.
Michael Burke
3. Ludon
Ryan, Having grown up with the Space Shuttle, you may have seen some of the material I'm about to mention but it may have had the same effect on you as the Chesley Bonestell's art work for Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley's proposed space program depicted in Colliers magazine had on me. "That's very cool, but those are yesterday's dreams." I've been swinging around old Sol since 1958 so I grew up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Tomorrow in space for me was full of giant "tin-can" space stations and a tin-can space tug with arms bigger and meaner looking than the arms on the space pod in 2001 A Space Odyssey. And there were space shuttles - many kinds of shuttles - from the Lockheed Starclipper to the Faget designs with impossibly small wings. (Robert T. McCall's artwork from the late 60s and early 70s is a good place to look for some of these designs.) These were not just artist's wild designs. These vehicles were being proposed and studied. The aerospace journals and trade publications of the time were full of the stuff. That was the future I expected to see during my adult years. I knew that that future had been lost when I heard the reports that Congress had approved the Space Shuttle Program.

After the high of Apollo 11 and the near disaster of Apollo 13, politicians seeking more funding for their pet projects started talking up NASA's waste of taxpayer's dollars. "We're sening all that money into space..." Add to that the predictable public attitude of "I've seen that already, show me something new." and the writing was on the wall. The last few Apollo Lunar missions were cut. Still - and this was before the last moon mission had been flown - there was hope that Skylab could have led to the start of a strong manned Earth orbital space program while while we worked on going to Mars or at least back to the Moon. Not to be. In order to get approval and funding for the Space Shuttle program, NASA had to give up the Saturn rockets. The blueprints, the tooling and the jigs were to be disposed of.

In NASA's plans for the post-moon landing era the shuttle was to have been used along side the Saturn rockets. Men and small cargo riding in the shuttles and the larger stuff on the rockets. The tin-cans were designed to diameters of either 21 feet or 33 feet - the diameters of the Saturn stages. Designing a shuttle big enough to enclose and carry a 33 by 75 foot tin-can was out of the question.

On top of having to dispose of Saturn technology, the military arms were told to design their programs wo work with the shuttle. This is part of why the shuttle became so big and complicated, it had to carry - internally - the nation's (then) new generation of spy satellites. From what I understand, the Hubble Space Telescope is a redesign of one of those Keyhole birds. So what we got was a vehicle designed to be a taxi cab, a moving van and a dump truck.

As you can guess by now, I have mixed feelings about the ending of the Space Shuttle Program. With those two notable exceptions, it served us well for thirty years. That alone is worth noting for any aircraft or spacecraft. But it was not the vehicle we should have gotten all those years ago.
Kyle Motsinger
4. Urstoff
I think everyone's chances of making it to space aboard commercial ventures in the near future are much higher than they were of ever becoming an astronaut.
Bruce Meyer
5. dominsions
I'm actually encouraged by the ending of the Space Shuttle program. The technology for sending a payload into orbit is over 30 years old, and its time for NASA to step aside and let private business take over. NASA can go onto bigger and better things. I'm looking forward to seeing where the Microsofts, the Googles, the Starbucks, and the ingenuity of private enterprise will take the space program next.

www.dominsions.com
Kristen Templet
6. SF_Fangirl
The ending of the shuttle program is not what's so disheartening; it's the ending of the shuttle with no planned replacement. America is no longer the dominant space power and is well on its way to becoming a has-been world power. This is just one sign. Sadly the majority of the country is too busy watching reality TV to notice.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@Lundon

Mixed feelings is the right phrase. I agree with you insofar as its not the kind of ship we were "promised." However, even if it was an illusion, the fact the shuttle feelt existed felt like there was some kind of forward motion in space exploration. That feeling, illusionary or not, has been lost for me.
Ryan Britt
8. ryancbritt
@Lundon

Mixed feelings is the right phrase. I agree with you insofar as its not the kind of ship we were "promised." However, even if it was an illusion, the fact the shuttle feelt existed felt like there was some kind of forward motion in space exploration. That feeling, illusionary or not, has been lost for me.
Your Mom
9. Your Mom
You brought tears to my eyes. I remember that night on the roof. I hope your readers are right that the private sector will continue space exploration. Great article.
Your Mom
10. t charles b
I think they saw your your flash code but had no way to respond.
Good work.
Your Mom
11. Edward Brennan
The future of US human spaceflight is just like everything else. Public money given to private firms which then get all the profits from the public expenditure, and off-shoring the rest (Russia right now- but I would not be surprised to see that include China in the future). The Future is SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. America can be proud that instead of having a human spaceflight program that is government owned we will just have one that is government funded.
Your Mom
12. Galadriel
Thank you so much for this article. This response comes from a fellow member of Generation Space (never liked the dehumanizing Generation X title we've been saddled with... see below), basically all of us born approx. 1967--1983 into the innocence and hope of visionary human progress which our space program represented. I see the ending of the shuttle program--which was brought about by George W-- as symbolic of what's being done to the vast majority of our generation, and the next, by guys like him. No good jobs, no affordable health care, unsafe places to live; we're forced to fight wars to make money for rich companies; no innovation; deregulation so we don't have clean water/food/air; our environment trashed, and other countries' as well. Etc., etc. Seems like the strategy is to get all of us average folks out of the way of corporate profits, like their "troublesome" shuttle program. What these guys don't get is that when EVERYONE wins, everyone wins!!! We all live together on ONE little planet!!!

To end on a happier note: I have a cousin who flew several times on Endeavor, and she even sent us emails from space. Yes, getting messages from space was COOL. Talk about being inspired! Hopefully Generation Space and our kids can hang onto some of that past optimism and inspiration to make our future better than it looks today.
Your Mom
13. Laura Lee Nutt
Thank you for such a touching post, Ryan.

My youngest son wants more than anything to be a "spaceman." It saddens me that he doesn't have anything like a shuttle program to dream about like you and I did.
Dana Blackwell
14. jackdaw
I find Billy Bragg's song "The Space Race is Over" very sad:

When I was young I told my mum
I'm going to walk on the Moon someday
Armstrong and Aldrin spoke to me
From Houston and Cape Kennedy
And I watched the Eagle landing
On a night when the Moon was full
And as it tugged at the tides, I knew deep inside
I too could feel its pull
I lay in my bed and dreamed I walked
On the Sea of Tranquillity
I knew that someday soon we'd all sail to the moon
On the high tide of technology
But the dreams have all been taken
And the window seats taken too
And 2001 has almost come and gone
What am I supposed to do?
Now that the space race is over
It's been and it's gone and I'll never get to the moon
Because the space race is over
And I can't help but feel we've all grown up too soon

Here's a YouTube video - the actual song starts at 1:40.
Your Mom
15. joachim
As the shuttle retirement was being announced, NASA also announced openings for 20 new astronauts who were to go to Mars. I remember this because I applied for one of those positions. For a salary lower than I made as a construction worker in college, I would be able to put my new Physics PhD to the best use I could think of. I made it through the first cut, and then two years went by... and somehow they tracked me down at my new address and let me know I wouldn't get the job. By that point the Constellation (and Mars missions) had been scrapped, and they did hire new astronauts, but...

I was impressed that at least they tried. They had some plan, even if they had no money.

All the issues of sacrifice and dealing with corporate behemeths has been the way of life for scientists throughout the 20th century. That's how we get things done, it's how Apollo worked, it's how NASA works, it's how the private space ventures work: spend on the overpriced, profit inflated tool and work your buns off even if there's no money for salary. We freely offer to be taken advantage of so that we can work on these amazing projects.

As I sit here, trying to clear my lungs of the refuse of recent work with nitric acid (I work in a government lab now, the facilities are over 30 years old and failing), I think maybe American culture has passed us scientists by. Don't touch the government programs that make life more convenient, but feel free to drain the government and professional (read: corporate) labs of talent. This is a choice we have collectively made. There's a current mythology that any research can be done on the cheap by foriegn students or as a hobby. It's really too bad.

The simple fact is: if America wanted to continue to dream, we wouldn't be wondering what was coming next and we would have found funding for it.
Your Mom
16. JamesWM
If you accept a trip to low earth orbit as space travel, then I think regular space travel may be available in the next few decades, for those who can afford it. But I have my doubts that traveling in space is something that will reach beyond that level any time soon.

The coming of Europeans to the Americas in great numbers over the past few centuries was sparked by economic, commercial and political pressures in the Old World that were not only real, but urgent. Plus, there was a proven, if risky, technology for getting people across the Atlantic Ocean.

Outside of the benefits of satellite technology, and maybe the need to figure out in advance how to push threatening meteors out of our way, I don't see any pressing reason for space travel right now. There may indeed be very pressing reasons, but we haven't clearly identified them, and they aren't a factor in global politics or economics. Plus, when it comes to space travel technology, we're still looking for X, The Unknown Element, that Doc Smith dreamed up for "The Skylark of Space" nearly a century ago. Space travel --- at least as we can do it now --- is a gigantic, slow-moving energy suck that pretty much nullifies any potential commercial benefits of getting out of earth orbit. And without an urgent need to be in space in the first place, it will be hard to put a lot of resources, public or private, in a risky endeavor that is sure to kill a good share of people along the way. We accept such risks on our highways, but I don't think society is ready to look at monthly fatalities outside of earth's gravitational pull.

The U-S launched a space program, to a large degree because we wanted to show we could do something big, in the context of the Cold War. China may now move to the forefront of space exploration, because they also want to show they can do something big. But that sort of space exploration is largely political theater. I accept that real research with long-term benefits is being done at the International Space Station, but I think governments fund it mainly for the political theater. When space travel means more than political theater to the world as a whole, then we'll have a real effort at space travel. But I just don't see that we're there yet.
Your Mom
17. AlBrown
I do not regret the end of the shuttle era. It was a marvel of technology but also a fierce consumer of budgets. It looked sometimes like NASA was suppressing other possible manned vehicles so there would not be an alternative to the shuttle. They say an elephant is a mouse built to government specs, and the shuttle was an example of that. If we used a similar philosophy to NASA in buying personal vehicles, we would drive 18 wheelers to and from work, just in case we ever needed them to move our homes. The crying need for a small crew vehicle should have been addressed years ago, and a smaller vehicle could have used a shape similar to the shuttle which because of its lighter weight, would not have needed near the shielding, and been near the challenge to construct and maintain.
The reason there is no manned follow-on ready is because NASA's follow on program was a bloated mess, seemingly cobbled together from shuttle parts to keep the old production lines operating as long as possible, not to design the best possible vehicle. But SpaceShip One has shown a new way, SpaceShip Two is following close on its heels, and a Dragon capsule (unmanned for its first flights) has already successfully orbited the planet, and will probably carry supplies to the Space Station by the end of the year. In Europe, they have the Jules Verne cargo vehicle flying that could eventually be converted to a manned vehicle. The Chinese are moving into space.
If NASA appears rudderless and dying, it isn't a murder, it is from self inflicted wounds. Man will go into space, and now that NASA is stepping out of the launch business and hiring others, we see a new era dawning, an era that could significantly the cost per pound of putting material in orbit, which is the true key to a future in space. The shuttle was intended to drive costs down by being resusable, but turned out to be monstrously expensive, not to mention dangerous to fly in.
So goodbye, shuttle, we learned a lot from you technically, but from a program viewpoint we learned what we shouldn't ever do again. And hello and welcome to the new vehicles and new approaches of a bold new era!

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