As each remaining orbiter of the shuttle fleet takes their final flight to museums around the nation, it is a fitting time to reflect on the legacy of these iconic space vehicles.
Citizens and visitors went outside in large numbers to watch the final flybys of these majestic birds that were the cornerstone of America's human spaceflight activities for 30 years. An entire generation has grown up knowing the Space Shuttle as America's only method of human access to space. Clearly this was an important passing, the end of an era. Many now believe that the end of the Shuttle era marks the end of U.S. leadership in human spaceflight.
As we close out the Space Shuttle era, we should reflect both on the amazing accomplishments of what they have achieved as well as the harsh lessons of the two tragic accidents. Most importantly, it is a time to reflect about the future, and why America should and is leading the world in human space exploration today and in the future!
The Space Shuttle has been the most successful space launch system ever by far. In 30 years we launched the Space Shuttle 135 times. Today more than half of the just over 500 people who have ever orbited the earth, have done so aboard one of the five space shuttles. The fleet has launched satellites, interplanetary probes, orbital laboratories and space telescopes, and most all of the non-Russian parts of the International Space Station were lifted to orbit aboard shuttles.
These amazing successes have been marred by two tragic failures: the sad losses of Challenger and of Columbia and their crews. These brought the survivability expectations both actual and projected to about a one in seventy chance of death, which is far higher than we should ask of our NASA explorers, and far higher than is acceptable for future commercial and private access to space.
The shuttle for all its capabilities was a victim of the political process of its creation. It became the ship of compromises, a single ship to fit all needs. Its goals were changed a number of times in development. In the end, while it succeeded in its goal to be able to lift a large crews and massive cargo into orbit, it failed both to reach the highly anticipated and fundamentally needed safety, and to fulfill an intended cost effectiveness promise which would have been achievable by leveraging flight frequency and full reusability. For example, while every capsule style spacecraft has had launch abort systems to allow the crew to escape in case of launch failure, the Shuttle's originally planned ejection seats were cut due to weight and other considerations in the final design. And instead of being able to fly every week or two, each orbiter was largely disassembled, inspected and reassembled each flight, which made flights infrequent and costly. Even the space shuttle's basic delta wing configuration, grew out of an air force partnership demand that the vehicle could make cross range landings. This was one of many technical capabilities the shuttle satisfied, but was never used.
While we will not and should never forget these shortcomings and tragedies, we should now live in the present and look with pride at America's space future. I spent this past weekend at the World Science Festival in Washington D.C. alongside numerous NASA officials, and on a panel discussing the future of spaceflight with Elon Musk of Space X and George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic. The event was attended by many tens of thousands of students and it was clear that interest in science and space was far from dead. Lockheed Martin (builder of NASA's new Orion spacecraft) was the main sponsor and their new capsule sat center stage. NASA, Space X and the whole pantheon of new commercial contributors were well represented too. It was a festival of the future; it was great to see the enthusiasm for STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) as well as space.
Sadly, while there, I heard yet again, something I have heard from old and young across the country almost every time I give a speech. Just after I finished sharing a presentation of my own trip to the ISS with the many eager conference participants, a young girl of about age 11, came up to me and said "Wow it's so cool you got to go into space, and sad that I will never get the chance because we are no longer going to send astronauts into space." When I told her, that "In fact, we do still send astronauts into space, and new rockets are being built right now, so don't give up your dream of space flight" her face lit up, and she yelled out "Yes!" as she fist pumped into the air.
NASA had a plan, called Constellation, to take us back to the Moon and then on to Mars. However, this plan was far too expensive and would have taken far too long. Thus, no president or congress ever called for it to be funded, and it was eventually canceled. In the face of great adversity though, NASA has figured out a great solution. By relying on commercial solutions for "routine" human launch capability, just like they already do for most satellite and interplanetary probe launches, they can cut the cost of basic access to the space station and other work in low earth orbit by something on the order of 10 fold or more! This means that NASA can now focus its budget and innovation on taking humanity farther into the solar system!
Understandably, this plan is incredibly disruptive to the status quo, causing job losses in many of the NASA facilities and with traditional prime contractors, along with the divisive politics that come along with such huge changes. But it is also saving NASA huge amounts of money, while dramatically expanding its capabilities and letting it shop for varying solutions as its needs change. It will also allow other commercial companies to plan their own business in space, which was never possible when only NASA had human space vehicles that were unavailable to commercial companies or private use. This new public private partnership method is working! Costs are dropping, flight frequency will soon rise, safety will thus improve, and access to space will become democratized.
With the combination of the powerful capabilities of the International Space Station (which could only have been built by the Space Shuttle) and new low cost access to access it and beyond, we are poised to enter a new "Golden Age of Space Travel"!
The legacy of the Shuttle Program is great! What we have learned through its tenure and what we are learning today because of the assets it has put in space are testimonies to its success. As this era is now behind us, let us both take pride in what the Shuttle Program has accomplished, and acknowledge our new needs for the future, and revel in the golden age to come!
NASA is now poised to once again, go boldly where no one has gone before!