DeFlip Side #115: Continuing the Dream


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s the end of an era. After 134 missions spanning three decades, NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended last week with the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

“The final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.”

—NASA Announcer during Atlantis launch

Continue the dream? An odd choice of words, Mr. NASA Announcer, because not only does Atlantis’ final flight signal the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, it puts America’s manned space program in limbo. And despite some bold directives laid out by President Obama the shape of our spacefaring future has never been more uncertain.

It’s a far cry from the final days of the Apollo program when the space shuttle was first conceived, heralding a giant leap in the evolution of NASA’s mission: build the world’s first reusable spacecraft, a multi-purpose space plane designed to make space flight routine and practical, and to drive down mission costs. The shuttle fleet would be used not only for exploration, but for deliveries and to carry commercial payloads like satellites into space.

It was a tall order. But in 1977, less than five years after the final Apollo mission, NASA unveiled the first prototype shuttle, named Enterprise—after a certain fictional starship of some renown. The Enterprise had no engines and rolled onto the tarmac attached to the back of a 747, which brought it into the air to perform glide tests vital to the viability of the shuttle program. The tests were a success.

And on April 12th, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia ushered in the next phase of American manned space exploration.

The shuttle program did indeed live up to its promise, flying mission after mission with little incident—which ironically turned into one of its chief liabilities. Because after the fanfare died down, and travel to space became relatively routine, people started to ignore it. Despite our predilection to celebrate space firsts like Columbia and historic lasts like Atlantis, the truth is that Americans don’t really care about the shuttle program, or space flight in general. Except, or course, when there’s a disaster.

Before Atlantis flew last week, you probably would’ve been hard pressed to name any shuttles besides Columbia or Challenger. As for shuttle astronauts, some trivia buffs might come up with Sally Ride—the first American female in space—but most people would probably only remember Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger explosion—not an astronaut. Hell, even I can’t remember any names of the late Columbia crew off the top of my head, and I’ve devoted entire DeFlip Side episodes to commemorating their deaths.

Which is a shame, because the men and women in the shuttle program have helped expand our knowledge of the universe immeasurably. Shuttle missions launched the Magellan Probe that mapped Venus, sent the Galileo orbiter to Jupiter, hurled the Ulysses mission toward the sun and released the Gamma Ray Observatory to measure space radiation. The shuttle has helped us stare all the way back to the very origins of the universe by ferrying the Hubble Telescope into orbit; and it has helped us take a definitive step into the future by facilitating the construction of the International Space Station. The capabilities and versatility of the shuttle fleet allowed America to maintain a leadership role in the development of the ISS up until its recent completion. And now the era of American space superiority seems to be coming to an end.

So where do we go from here?

Back in 1994, President Bush unveiled the Constellation program to take astronauts back to the moon and onward to Mars, but he never funded it. Just as well, since Constellation didn’t represent a leap forward but giant step back. It was basically a rehash of the Apollo program, right down to the single rocket booster and bell-shaped capsule. As I said here years ago, another moon shot in a bigger, ballsier Apollo is not the way to approach American space exploration in the 21st Century.

President Obama has since axed the program, saying been there, done that. Instead he outlined a bolder long-term strategy for space exploration that relies on accomplishing a series of advancing goals:

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space… We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it. But I want to repeat this: Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers.”

To do so, the president plans to enlist the private sector in helping develop these propulsion systems, necessary for the long journey to Mars. The shift to public-private partnership is a positive step because private enterprise thrives on results. Consider the success of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded space flight. The profit motive will help spur the advancement of space technologies like nothing since the Soviet threat.

There will also be a greater emphasis on international cooperation. As NASA Chief Charles Bolden said in this interview with Al Jazeera:

“We’re not gonna go anywhere beyond low Earth orbit as a single entity. The United States can’t do it, China can’t do it. No single nation is going to go to a place like Mars alone, for a number of reasons. The technologies that we need to get there are going to come from a variety of different nations who offer different specialties and different talents.”

This inclusive philosophy has caused many people to lament the demise of America’s space dominance. But that kind of thinking is a byproduct of the warped way space technology was developed in the 20th Century—more as a reaction to Cold War tensions and fears than as a genuine desire for scientific advancement. An adversarial, America-first mentality is outmoded and doomed to fail in this new century. We no longer need enemies to spur our accomplishments, we need partners.

And we need only look in wonder at the shuttle program’s most enduring legacy, the International Space Station, to realize just how far partnership can advance us. It’s a testament to the paradigm shift that the shuttle program has made possible, a beacon of international collaboration and cooperation in space—and one that should help guide us forward into the uncharted future.