America no longer has a space shuttle program. Atlantis has completed the STS-135 mission, its 33rd flight (I believe) and when it wheels rolled to a stop, so ended the era of the Space Shuttle. There has been no other operational vehicle like it. Buran came the closest, having a single test-flight to space. Unmanned. Whereas our shuttles will be retired to museums (Discovery goes to the Smithsonian, Endeavor to the California Science Museum, Enterprise to the USS Intrepid, and Atlantis to remain at Kennedy Space Center on display), the Burans are rusting away.
With it goes our ability to put our own people into space. We’ll be relying on Russia for the foreseeable future. Indeed much of our space future relies on hope. Hope that private industry will succeed and perhaps finally deliver on something the shuttle never managed to do: routine and inexpensive access to low-earth orbit. Hope. That’s all we have at present. I’m pretty confident in the private sector’s ability to do it, but perhaps not on the timetables we’re hoping for. Hope. I seem to recall that as a campaign promise, or sorts, that I don’t feel delivered.
Let’s hope that Russia doesn’t suffer some sort of catastrophe that defunds their program, thus grounding us as well.
On the horizon is Orion, an Apollo-esque capsule design that may one day take us beyond the gravity well of our home world. While that’s maturing nicely in its development, the rocket that will launch it isn’t even on the drawing board yet. Congress has laid out the minimum requirements, but NASA has hinted that it won’t be possible to achieve under the timeline mandated with the budgeting authorized for it.
Sometimes I feel like we have lost our spirit.
If you didn’t see it, you should check this out:
And then its final landing:
So long shuttle program! To all the men and women who have made it possible over the last thirty plus years… I salute you.