As a kid, I loved space exploration, astronomy, and I figured we’d be colonizing the moon or Mars right about now. How mine and our collective dreams have retreated. The shuttle had its last flight earlier this week. It never inspired the way the moon shots did. It was a bow to manned space flight, but a platform with little potential. Many of the manned missions and experiments had the feel of being thought up on the fly with little justification compared to the great value-added of unmanned space flight and exploratory satellites. In any case, it was a far cry from the Apollo program, with the massive Saturn V5 rocket and the iconic moon landings. And it was a program, and NASA remains a program collectively, without an inspiring and unifying vision.
The Shuttle’s record was appalling when you think about it. Two crashes with great loss of life out of five shuttles and 135 flights. While reusable spacecraft has a superficial and natural appeal, it’s probably doomed to failure because of the stresses that any particular launch and reentry has on a platform. Gregg Easterbrook, at the inception of the shuttle program, wrote exactly that here.
The manned space program may very well be a luxury we cannot afford as a nation. We are learning that handing over trillions of dollars from the young and productive to the old, infirm, mentally ill, as well as assorted scam artists, “make work” government workers, and all the rest creates an unsustainable financial drain on the nation and the government. We have become the “can do” nation exemplified by JFK’s youth and vigor to the sclerotic, unimaginitive, and fearful welfare state whose era has passed. Indeed, we went from being like the Ancient Greeks–heroic, democratic, and intelligent–to the Greece of today: greedy, short-sighted, and self-destructive. And indeed, the very names of our space programs say much about it. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo gave way to the uninspiring “Space Transportation System,” which was the Shuttle’s official program name.