The End of an Era: Shuttle Program Launches Final Flight

By Frank Bellamy

As I write this, the last space shuttle to fly, Atlantis, is docked at the International Space Station. The other two shuttles, Endeavor and Discovery, are already being prepared for an eternity as museum pieces. By the time you read this, Atlantis will have landed, and the space shuttle program will have come to an end. The shuttle is unique in being a reusable space vehicle. In the 30 year history of the shuttle program,135 missions will have been undertaken by five shuttles (Challenger and Columbia were destroyed in fatal accidents). Whether there will be another reusable vehicle in the foreseeable future of spaceflight is an open question.

The shuttle program has involved some incredible accomplishments. One of the foremost among these is the Hubble Space Telescope, which was taken into space by Discovery in 1990 and was repaired and upgraded by shuttle astronauts five times in the subsequent two decades. Hubble has been used to make a number of important scientific discoveries in astronomy and cosmology regarding everything from black holes to extra solar planets to the expansion of the universe. The Hubble Deep Field and Hubble Ultra Deep Field images have shown us galaxies billions of light years away from the early history of the universe.

Another great achievement of the shuttle is its contribution to the International Space Station. Space shuttles have made nearly forty trips to the International Space Station, bringing new pieces of the station itself, new crews, and supplies. The Station is important not only for the scientific research and development that is conducted there but also for fostering cooperation among the many countries involved.

On one level it is sad to see America’s only manned space program end with no concrete plans for what to replace it with. But on another level, it was inevitable, and it is the kind of pain that is necessary for growth. Manned spaceflight has never been the most cost effective way to do make scientific discoveries, and that isn’t ultimately what it is about. The most important benefit of manned spaceflight is to inspire. Most children do not imagine becoming a lab technician when they grow up—they want to be astronauts. People are excited by exploring frontiers, and that excitement is what drives science.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Isaac Asimov Science Award in 2009, put it, low earth orbit, where the space shuttle goes, “is to boldly go where hundreds have gone before. It’s not a frontier anymore. Move NASA to the next step.” NASA is paying several companies to develop new vehicles to go to low earth orbit, but NASA itself needs to move on. Going to an asteroid or to Mars, like going to the moon in the 1960s, will advance frontiers and inspire people. I can only hope that with the end of the shuttle program NASA will be enabled to focus on that goal.

Frank Bellamy is a summer intern with the American Humanist Association. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware and will enter law school in the fall at the University of Virginia. He is also a board member of the Secular Student Alliance.