A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.
On 21 July at 0956 Greenwich Mean (0556 EDT) space shuttle Atlantis touched down on Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center, bringing the 30 year-old Shuttle program to a close. Over half the planet’s population has never lived in a world without the space shuttle.
The local paper of record published a curiously disparaging editorial prior to the last launch of Atlantis, in which it seemed that the editorial board was struggling to find positive things to say about the program. Their main point is that the program failed to deliver on the heady promises of the early days and cost a lot more than advertised. Well, you could say that about pretty much any government program. I suppose that government efforts that don’t involve mailing checks to people or controlling other’s lives are going to get short shrift in the editorial board room at The Oregonian.
As even the most ardent supporters of the shuttle will point out, the program was hideously expensive, involved some very complex and temperamental hardware, required an army of highly skilled people to operate, and was a maintenance nightmare. Over the long-term, the program was not, to coin a word, sustainable.
So what did we get for the nearly $200 billion spent on the shuttle program? Besides a lot of cool hardware, we had the ability to loft 7 people and 30 tons of cargo into low earth orbit, and bring the people and 20 tons of cargo back, on a somewhat regular basis. No other vehicle has even come close, and none are in the offing. We developed and maintained the infrastructure and knowledge base to do that. Riding fire is no easy feat. In all of human history, only three nations have managed it, and only two have done it with regularity. It’s an extraordinary achievement.
We did get a lot of satellites launched, some that required the unique capabilities of the shuttle, and there was a lot of science done on orbit. But I would argue that by far the greatest achievement of the shuttle program was the inspiration it engendered in people around the globe. Maybe half a dozen times annually, Americans and others were reminded that we are a great people that can do great things. No kid dreams of becoming a government bureaucrat, but it’s safe to say that thousands of children, and not a few adults, were inspired to get the skills and knowledge that would put them in position to be part of the grand adventure. People want to be part of something awe-inspiring. The most capable people aren’t beating down the doors to collect government welfare. They do want to be part of a society that pushes boundaries.
We also got something permanent and tangible for our money and the 14 lives lost over the program. You can spend money on social programs ’till the cows come home, but when the money’s gone, the problems still remain, and in the long-term there’s nothing to really show for the resources expended. As a society we acquired the unique capability to build and operate reusable manned spacecraft. This knowledge is already being put to use by private companies across the country. If the bureaucrats have enough sense to stay the hell out of the way, the investment in the shuttle program will pay dividends many times over. I expect to see many more spacecraft proudly wearing the American flag, but I also expect to see them making money while inspiring new generations.
I’m looking to travel to Atlanta in a couple of months, and thought it would be nice to see if I could get a ride on a 747. Of all the plane trips I’ve taken, including overseas, I’ve never been aboard ‘The Queen of the Skies’. It turns out that there are no domestic routes that feature the 747. This was surprising. It looks like the best bet to ride a 747 is to travel to Heathrow or Sydney. Hmmm. I guess I’ll start saving the pennies now.