Over & Out: The End of the US Shuttle Program


On Thursday, July 21st, 2011 – a little more than a year ago — the Atlantis space shuttle landed smoothly at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Mission Commander Chris Ferguson’s voice, shaken with emotion, rang loud and clear in Mission Control: “Atlantis is finally home. We were honored to be a part of this….but it [ultimately] is everyone who has worked on the shuttle program—although we got to take the ride, we sure hope that everybody who has ever worked…touched…looked at…admired a space shuttle was able to take just a little part of the journey with us.”

And with that sentimental finish for the 135th space shuttle mission, the 30-year shuttle program officially came to a close. The space shuttle made the United States (and the world) a better place – hundreds of astronauts have traveled to space, medical and scientific research discoveries have been made, and America’s leadership in space has been unquestionable for the past half-century. From 1981 until July 2011, NASA’s space shuttle (part of the official Space Transportation System) was the United States government’s manned launch vehicle and the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and landing, as well as being the only reusable space vehicle that has every made multiple flights into orbit.

With the door closed on this chapter of NASA’s space flight history, the question remains: what’s next? Although President Obama has unveiled a plan for the future of American space flight involving revamping the Orion crew capsule to eventually carry astronauts into deep space, NASA administration officials are facing the realities of the cancellation of existing rocket launcher and spacecraft programs and the layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers — all signs pointing to the federal government’s belief that the space program is “too costly” to continue funding in today’s economic climate.

How and why did the United States get involved in the space program in the first place? In the midst of a power war with the Soviet Union, America was determined to gain an “edge” on its Eastern European rival. The space race began, and the United States claimed the victory when Neil Armstrong completed his moonwalk in July 1969. Following the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the United States continued to improve space travel, culminating in the development (and completion) of the International Space Station (ISS). From the inception of the space program, the United States has been motivated by a desire to “beat out the competition” and reign supreme in this highly international and technological arena. The United States achieved incredible success over the past fifty years, and its absence from continued space program development may symbolize a decline in America’s leadership; in the future, American astronauts will now have to “hitch a ride” in Russian space vehicles in or-der to get to the ISS. Without a clear future path for NASA, the United States simply cannot play the same role it once did.

There is already a growing fear that China will eventually overtake the United States as the dominant world power. Although this power transition may not happen anytime soon, there is evidence to suggest that our decline in focus on manned space flight may play a part in speeding up this transition. The  steady decline in emphasis on math and science education for children in the US presents a stark contrast to China’s strong math and science requirements. Students from Asia and India now dominate many of the technical programs in top-ranked American universities. The space exploration stimulation that sparked young American students’ interests in science and engineering is no longer present. Will American leadership in the space program be a thing of the past? Only time will tell. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, space exploration has always served as inspiration for children over the past generations—many children claimed their dream jobs as astronauts, engineers, and scientists. Astronauts have been idolized as America’s true superheroes. No other technological advancement can preach the belief that the sky is literally no limit to what can be achieved with ambition and disciplined commitment. What will drive future innovation and progress for our nation?

Interestingly, NASA has acknowledged the effects of economic cuts to the American space program. Although Joseph Dyer, chairman of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, praises NASA for doing an “excellent job” in planning for the shuttle’s retirement, there is no doubt that a “Team B” effect has plagued the organization. “The good guys see the end coming and leave,” said Albert D. Wheelon, former aerospace executive and Central Intelligence Agency official, “the best and brightest often head for the doors….and you’re left with the B students.”

This issue hits home for me because my dad has worked for the past 20 years as a project manager for the ISS in its Huntsville’s branch. For the Atlantis launch, my family had the opportunity to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida to honor my dad’s work as well as receive a quality view of this final step in NASA’s program. As Atlantis glided across the sky in this bittersweet moment, tears filled the eyes of those surrounding me, for these people had given their lives to watch America send a man into space. The end of America’s shuttle program not only signifies a potential end to America’s leadership in space, but also goes much further in representing an end to the way of life for those who have, are, and will continue to inspire America’s children for generations to come. Unfortunately, without significant action on America’s part, this present-day inspiration appears destined to become nothing more than pure history.

This article was written by Liesel Burks and previously appeared in a print edition of the Vanderbilt Political Review.

Image credit: [http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-mBSjhpMoRZ8/TigbS4yYO_I/AAAAAAAAB3s/JhthPbsuWow/s1600/space_shuttle_13.jpg]

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  • Willy#10

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    Jim,Thank you for commenting on this arlctie.The first question that I asked was somewhat rhetorical but it seemed to make sense. I suggested that with all those Nasa and Air Force projects out there, we should have a means of shuttling astronauts and heavy payloads to orbit other than the SST. The original Dyna-Soar(circa 1963, maybe sooner than that) could carry at least 2 astronauts into orbit at that time. I don’t know, however, if it was ever completed for the Air Force. I just figured that the services always had a parallel program anyway and not depending on the civilian sector to handle their missions also. The Titan 4 comes to mind when one thinks of a heavy lift vehicle. Nova was on the drawing boards though, again, I don’t know for sure if it was ever completed. The public was told it was not built. It was a very large upgrade of the Saturn 5, I think and was to be used for a mission to Mars by 1980. It was to have 12 million pounds of thrust and would have stood much higher than your Saturn 5 moon rocket and was a very ambitious project indeed. I was looking forward to it, as were a lot of people back then. However, all we ever saw back then were the layoffs from Nasa. Skylab was put into orbit by a Saturn booster, but it seemed the public learned little of it before its orbit decayed and the Shuttle went up. What a waste. We could not use the military space station and had to go on our own in the civilian sector.I believe, nowadays, that the Titan 4 rocket is being used routinely to put school bus size objects into just about any orbit we desire but we as civilians know very little about what these payloads carry when the space above is increasingly militarized in some form or other.You say the public is apathetic about the space program but you don’t realize how many kids lost their family security when literally a million people were laid off back in the haydays of the space flights. I talked to a kid once about this. I mentioned going into some kind of aerospace job and all he could do is mention his father was laid off. He absolutely could not get past his father’s layoff. Do you guys realize how many kids’ dreams were crushed back in those times. They were eager to go up and this whole thing was pulled out from under them. There must have been a thousand kids that wanted to go up there in space for every astronaut that really went. Even now, look how much resistance there is to just one lousy civilian going up on one of the shuttles. The few civilians that have gone up report how distasteful their experiences and actual contact with the astronauts have been. I was truly shocked at the time I first heard of these reports.What I brought up concerning Nasa and the shuttle is whether some kind of parallel space project produced some kind of exotic technology that could possibly aid in transporting astronauts and heavy payloads to space. All the other technology is rocket powered. If there is such a thing, we have not been told about it by those in charge. We taxpayers have poured countless billions of dollars into the space program for over half a century and we know little of what has really gone on, if one puts any credibility in all the rumors that fly about.My point in bringing up a second question about why John Glenn was put into orbit had nothing to do with what is officially published concerning his mission on that shuttle flight. Besides being already flight rated, he has the title of Senator which gives him some stature among those in space. As such, his importance is as a government representative and a negotiator above that of just being there as an astronaut. He has experience as a negotiator since he has served on the nuclear nonproliferation committee, I believe. His name came up when we did an arlctie on the threat the Earth faces from space. It was a shuttle flight he was on that we called attention to.The third point I brought up was that with all these years since 1998 and 100 billion dollars spent on hardware, there is a huge amount of manhours spent on things we here on Earth are simply not privy to.Since you bring up the ISS I thought I would run something else by you that is puzzling to many folks back here. Why are there no stars in the ISS images, anywhere, anytime? All the scifi I watched as a kid showed a humungous number of stars when the ship reached orbit and the astronauts peered out of the port hole of their spacecraft.


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