When space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth later this month, NASA’s three-decade project will come to an end. In a statement commemorating the final launch, President Barack Obama mentioned his “excitement about the next chapter of our pre-eminence in space.” But after this mission our exploratory future remains unclear.
The shuttle program always had critics, but following the Columbia disaster, which claimed the lives of seven crew members in 2003, a panel investigating the incident concluded that it was “in the nation’s interest to replace the shuttle as soon as possible." In 2004, officials proposed phasing out this program to free up funding for one that was safer, more focused, and less expensive.
Project Constellation promised to be more practical, but it still had big ideas—man’s return to the moon by 2020, and his first steps on Mars in 2030. President Obama initially backed funding for the plan, but amid the nation’s ongoing economic woes, the project was canceled earlier this year. As part of a growing trend, the government now looks to the private sector to provide the next development in low-orbit vehicles.
Dreams of space exploration have long been a significant aspect of our national character. After the New World was sufficiently mapped out, the yearning for exotic frontiers remained. In the 1800s, writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne wrote works imagining fantastic lunar voyages. As advances in technology developed, so did science fiction fantasies.
In the 1930s, U.S., Soviet, and German scientists made some important breakthroughs in rocket development, but the technology really began to take off after World War II. A booming postwar economy combined with new Cold War concerns led to the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation with the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1969 this promise was fulfilled. America’s race to the stars seemed unstoppable, but budgetary concerns began to surface.
Mounting Vietnam War costs and an economic downturn forced the government to make cutbacks at NASA in the 1970s, but previous accomplishments still demanded high expectations. Apollo craft were deemed unsafe and ill equipped for future endeavors, so work began on a new solution.
Sold as a comparatively inexpensive and reliable “railroad” to the stars, the Space Transportation System (better known as the space shuttle) offered a revolutionary and reusable spacecraft that would make routine weekly voyages—with the long-held promise of public space flight not far behind.
“If you think our space program is rapidly going out of style, you are wrong,” wrote NASA director and pre-eminent rocket scientist Wernher von Braun in a 1974 Popular Science article promoting the shuttle. “And if you believe that after the spectacular successes of Apollo and Skylab, U.S. space flights will henceforth be limited to unmanned activities, you are wrong again.”
In 1981, the shuttle program brought back manned space flight to the United States after a seven-year hiatus, but the project would never accomplish what it had hoped to achieve, and would end up costing far more than the Apollo program it was designed to replace. The tragic Challenger disaster in 1986 further tarnished public image of the project.
Despite these setbacks, the shuttle did accomplish important missions. The vehicle’s cargo space allowed it to haul up the Hubble telescope, various parts for the International Space Station, as well as necessary supplies for repairs and maintenance. However, the space program was never able to capture public imagination as it once had."NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration," Obama told reporters during his 2008 campaign for president. "I don’t think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t even pass for news anymore."
Following retirement, NASA’s shuttle fleet will be on display in museums across the country. These spacecraft will provide an image and history to consider as we await the next chapter in space travel.