“Wheels stop.” With those two words, the era of the Space Shuttle officially closed. Those two words are traditionally spoken by the Shuttle Commander as the orbiter comes to a complete stop, either on the runways at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center or Edwards Air Force Base in California. This stop though is starker than others.
It’s not just that the last shuttle landed but also that an estimated 6,300 people will be laid off. Engineers, technicians and some of the smartest people on the planet will be given pink slips instead of mission briefing books to review for the next action in a legendary flight line.
Additionally, the “high temple” of American space flight, Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control, will go silent. Seth Borenstein’s Associated Press article does a masterful job of describing the historical and personal implications of that.
For a war-weary country that remains in the woes of lingering unemployment (while bickering partisans acting more like temperamental four year old brats fight out the debt ceiling issue), this end of an era could not occur at a more emotionally down time. America’s adventure in space has always been a rallying point for all of the dreams and wonder we could achieve. To have it end, with no immediately viable option other than cut a check to our former space race adversaries, the Russians, for a ride on a Soyuz spacecraft to access the International Space Station (which American taxpayers bought and paid for) is a real blow to the ego and the heart.
For the past few weeks leading up to the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis, there has been an almost romantic and at times woeful retrospective of the end of this era of space flight. As someone who was fortunate to work with NASA on several shuttle missions, I have to admit to feelings of pride and sadness as the last shuttle lifted off. I distinctly remember watching the early morning launch of Space Shuttle Columbia and then racing to the bus stop to tell the other kids what I thought about it.
I know I wasn’t the only kid excited to see a space launch. Anyone who has ever witnessed one firsthand can easily describe the shear awe and emotion of it. The flash of light; the lift off from the launch pad and arcing up to the clouds; the sound wave that rolls across the water, shaking the ground and you with it; a resounding roar that declares in no uncertain terms, “I’m outta here!”
For as revolutionary as televisions, cameras and recording equipment have become, none of them can begin to capture the magnitude of what liftoff is like. It’s raw emotion, power and technology coming together and unleashed in a directional flame that goes “out there,” to do things no one has ever done before. Maybe that is what we as a country will miss the most with nothing to immediately put on the launch pad to take us to those places. The ability to go and do those things almost at will is a hallmark of any leader. For now though we will have to wait until we see what the private sector can provide for a new era in human spaceflight.
The truth of this new era is that it could have been happening sooner. Failures in cost controls, management, Congress and successive Presidential Administrations of both political parties to formulate and stick with (and fund) a plan for the future have left us with a warehouse of lost opportunities vacant of launch vehicles to take us where we want to go. As firmly as I believe in the chartering mission of NASA, I just as firmly believe that the private sector may be the saving grace of human spaceflight by creating new technologies, launch platforms and much needed competition. Left in the hands of an increasingly dysfunctional government apparatus, we will remain on the ground and continue to perfect navel gazing to nowhere.
My frustration with the current circumstance is for all of the years of wasted programs, time and money, along with the institutional and cultural blockades that slowed the next era from happening right now. Yes, technology has to develop and be ready to use, but when you have incessant meddling, political interference, feeble commitments and attitudes that prevent forward progress you get the situation we inherit today. Nothing.
Americans have every right to feel empty right now when it comes to human spaceflight. We can celebrate the tremendous accomplishments we’ve achieved but those are parts of the past. America is and always has been about the future, and when no future is immediately in front of you, frustration fills the void. No amount of talking points from the White House, NASA or the space establishment can mask that.
In the time we have before private enterprise puts us back in the flight line, some serious soul searching by this country and its leaders on our future in space is in order. Regardless of whether we realize it, NASA and its work is a discretionary program. The science, technology and knowledge that the Agency provides are dividends that enhance the lives of people in this country and around the world. Those come as a result of tremendous costs and risks to treasure and human lives. No one knows that personal cost more than the families of the crews of Apollo1, Challenger and Columbia who literally gave all they had in service to their respective missions.
We certainly honor their sacrifice by pursuing ongoing space missions and continuing to explore places we have never been before, but I think we can do more for their memories and our future in space if we don’t allow another “wheels stop” to occur. Every ship is supposed to sail and rocket is to launch but when neither is available and exist only as a paper drawing, a model or a prototype, we again go nowhere.
Our soul searching with NASA will not be easy either. It will continue to struggle to justify its share of the federal budget against lots of other important programs that contribute to American life. That soul-searching probably means even more layoffs in the future as several of the existing NASA Centers need to be either BRAC-ed, realigned or outright closed. Talk to any current or former NASA executive in a completely off-the-record environment and they’ll tell you the Agency does not need all of the Centers it has. Many exist solely for political purposes, and it is shear political capital in the form of powerful delegations and Congressional earmarks that keep them alive.
In the austere fiscal climate we currently face, realigned resources and human capital can be better spent than propping up facilities and programs best archived to history. Those are unpopular and potentially career killing words to those who utter them, but sometimes the truth is what hurts the most. If you want a NASA that takes you into the 21st Century and beyond, it has to be built as such. Today’s NASA is not that mechanism. The Agency is not the sole reason we are not launching something new tomorrow morning. There are plenty of mechanisms and culprits to blame, but rather than annotate those, we must focus on how we close the gap – through the private sector is the way to go.
While I don’t expect a corporate flag to be planted on Mars or other floating space object before that of a nation-state, old-fashioned competition, ingenuity and yes, CAPITALISM, may be the only fuel for our starry-eyed pursuits. We’ve seen what happens when a government is fully vested and sticks to a plan – we get events like a Moon landing. We’ve also seen what happens when pursuits by the government are over-promised, under resourced and overly fickle in nature. It’s called “wheels stop.”