The title of this piece might suggest that I am a space skeptic. In fact, far from it. If I were in charge, we would be spending more on space, and making serious plans to get to Mars by the middle of the next decade, if not before. (Heck, if I had been in charge, we would probably have been there by now – w/o spending a dime more than we’ve spent on the Space Shuttle and ISS.) And, as for the Space Shuttle, well, count me among the millions who shed a nostalgic tear when Atlantis touched down last week and “ended an era.”
Alas, it was the end of a lousy era. Having reached for and attained the moon in less than a decade almost a half-century ago, the subsequent forty or so years have been largely wasted, at least in terms of humanity’s inevitable “reach for the stars.” We have spent the better part of four decades devoting roughly $5 billion a year to putting humans and cargo into low earth orbit – the cargo at costs substantially greater than the costs of doing the same with conventional rockets (and without risking human life – a risk that came home to roost, in the Shuttle’s case, twice). Sure, the Hubble repair could only be done with the Shuttle and it’s human occupants. But it’s at least arguable that it would have been no more expensive to build a second Hubble and launch it conventionally than it was to fly the Shuttle Hubble repair mission. And how many of the 135 Shuttle missions could even make that shaky claim to cost-justification?
Of course, the Shuttle made the $100 billion International Space Station easier to assemble. Which, of course, begs the question if ISS was the right place to spend $100 billion of precious human space flight resources (it is, after all, a sum equal to more than five years of aggregate NASA all-in budgets).
As the Shuttle Program ends, I am indeed nostalgic. Mostly for an era where when people talked about spending well over $200 billion on human space flight they talked more about exploring places where no one has gone before, and not about risking astronaut (and tourist) lives going back (and back) to places we visited forty plus years ago. Thank the Lord that the State-sponsored sailor/explorers who followed Columbus didn’t spend too much time, in subsequent decades, circling and re-circling the Azores.