So last Friday I watched the liftoff of the last Space Shuttle on the NASA feed in my office. I saw it for real once in 1992, when I went down to Florida just for the show. I had just quit a company after a especially painful project cancellation, and needed something to cheer me up. It worked. Even though I was ten miles away, the roar was deafening. It lit up the whole landscape. It was out of sight in minutes. It was awesome to see something that big go that fast.
But now it’s done for. It held on for far longer than I expected. Even in ’92 I thought that I had better see it while it was still flying. The Challenger explosion in 1986 had already shut it down for almost three years, and it was clear that it would not provide the routine, cheap access to space that it had promised.
So it’s not a tragedy that it has finished. Its only remaining job was to lift supplies to the ISS, and that can be done more cheaply and safely by Russian expendables. The Hubble won’t need servicing again, and no other scopes really need to be serviced by humans. The low orbit required for servicing was a handicap anyway.
No, the tragedy is that nothing has improved upon it. There have been a lot of attempts – E.g. Constellation, VentureStar , and DC-X – but little has come of them. The reasons don’t seem to be technical. DC-X and VentureStar were both radical designs: single-stage-to-orbit reusable ships. They were high-risk but high-payoff, and NASA didn’t believe in them. So they turned to Constellation, which was a low-risk incremental design that re-used the Shuttle solid-rocket boosters and main engines, and the Apollo return capsule. Obama cancelled it for being over-budget and boring.
I don’t think that was the problem. The real problem is that US leadership no longer believes that the country needs to do something technically flashy to show that it’s the leader of the world. That was the original purpose of the space program. The Soviet Union was just a distant, frozen country with weird politics until it put up Sputnik. That showed up the US as fat, slow and complacent. If communism could produce orbital rockets even when starting from way behind on every technical and industrial measure, then maybe there was something to it.
So the US swung into action, and aimed for the one space record that they thought they could win – first to the Moon. The Soviet Union actually won everything else: first satellite in orbit, first person in orbit, first probe to the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and first space station. The US got its victory, declared the race over, and lost interest. Its two big later space achievements, the Shuttle and Voyager, came out of left-over momentum from Apollo, and had hardly any follow-ons.
The same pattern appears in other areas. The last really tall building put up the US was the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower), built in Chicago in 1974, and it’s half the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The world’s most important physics experiment is the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, not the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, which was cancelled in 1993. The last really big bridge built in the country was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge of 1964, and it’s now 9th in terms of span.
You might say, “But we have Google and Amazon! That’s the technology of today.” Maybe those were hard to build in the late 90s, but they weren’t hard for long. They’re big now more because of returns-to-scale rather than because of technical leadership. They have lots of competition, and can be overturned as easily as Facebook overturned MySpace.
You might also say “Manned spaceflight was always ridiculous given how much cheaper robots are, and how much better scientific return they have.” Driving around on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity really was extraordinary, although it didn’t have the heavy metal thrill of a rocket launch. Still, that stuff is only cheap compared to the Shuttle. Those are billion-dollar science programs. That’s several years of research by a thousand people in Antarctica, on problems that are of critical importance, like climate change and ocean biology. They only get done at all as riders on NASA bills, and will disappear if manned spaceflight does.
Finally, you might say “Who cares about these contests? All this ‘Mine is bigger than yours’ stuff is puerile.” Sure, granted, but I’ll also note that the US’s reputation is in tatters after losing New Orleans to Katrina, and losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All its expensive tech has failed to defeat thugs with AK-47s. The country could use a clear, decent win on something, anything.
But that’s not how it looks to play out. The country hasn’t really exerted itself to demonstrate technical leadership on anything for a long time. That’s why I don’t think it’s going to replace the Shuttle. The manned space program will limp along for a few years with re-purposed boosters like the Delta IV and fly-by-night operations like SpaceX, but there isn’t the will to do more. Putting people in space was always mainly about PR, and they’re not interested in that any more.