A dry eyed goodbye to the Space Shuttle

Point the first: I think NASA should have more funding; but, like everyone else, I’m not going to bother saying what programs I’m going to raid to fund my pet programs.

Point the second: I kind of wish we’d been spending all that money we spent putting people into space on the unmanned, scientific instruments that have actually been illuminating our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe. That is not to say that I really regret the manned space flight program, as I’m not sure all those unmanned scientific instruments would have been built without the big goals associated with manned space flight (e.g., walking on the Moon). I’m just not particularly sad that the shuttle is being retired, nor I am particularly upset that there is no replacement ready to go.

I am mourning the end of NASA’s shuttle program for precisely one reason – it puts the nail in the Hubble Space Telescope’s coffin. No more maintenance. No more Hubble. Eventually. Guaranteed. I know Hubble wasn’t going to last forever and that NASA had already decided to let Hubble expire, but now they cannot even change their minds.

This also means that future instruments like Hubble will not have the possibility of dramatic repairs to save the instrument. The inability to repair errors will change the way such equipment is designed. Only the future will tell how much impact this will have. Even with the shuttle program, most missions to space have proceeded without the possibility of repair or maintenance.

The two major arguments I have heard for why we “need” a manned space program are:

1. The manned space program has generated all sorts of new technology that has now trickled down into out everyday lives.

Yes. So has the unmanned space program. So did World War II. This is an inevitable result of concerted efforts to develop high technology programs. The nature of those translatable technologies is also maddeningly difficult to predict. In short, there is not denying the carry-over benefits we have received from manned space flight, but the simple fact that the benefits would not have been the same from a different line of exploration does not suggest that we would not have benefitted equally. The only way to guarantee that these types of benefits dry up is to stop funding advanced research programs.

2. We need a manned space program to inspire young people to go into STEM fields.

My response to this argument consists of two questions.

One, how are all those countries that are reportedly kicking the US’s ever expanding ass in STEM education doing it without their own major manned space programs? While it might be a great motivator, a manned space program is hardly a requirement.

Two, what is especially inspiring about the manned space program?
The inspiration advantage of a manned space program boils down to giving kids the hope of being an astronaut. That is a very compelling hope. It is also wildly unrealistic. While thousands of people were involved in each shuttle launch, only a handful were astronauts. Unmanned space flight also requires thousands of people and advanced technology. We’ve sent robotic explorers to multiple other worlds. We threw a hunk of metal at a comet and hit it. The only difference is those few people in the spacesuits, which the inspired kids virtually have no chance of becoming. Inspire away; but don’t inspire with false hope and pipe dreams. With unmanned space flight, all those STEM jobs still exist. Let’s just say, if you cannot inspire kids with the Mars rovers, the problem is not NASA’s decisions, but that you are not very good at inspiring people.

For the record, I also think NASA should continue to invest in research regarding the elements required for eventually manned missions to other worlds, such as that described in Packing for Mars. That will be really useful in the future when we figure out a good, scientific reason to need a human on another planet. While humans are more creative than robots (for the moment), even your creative human researchers are going to be limited by the equipment we send with them.

Author: Josh Witten


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