Jul 11

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The Final Days of the Final Frontier…

This (Outer) Space for Rent

Space, the final frontier…these will no longer be the continuing voyages of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, Atlantis, and Discovery.  The space shuttle missions have now come to an end.  And that leaves Americans wondering what our next mission in space will be.

Or if we’ll even have one…

Burdened by an enormous debt, and the fallout from intense political infighting, some Americans have expressed a concern for Space Agency’s future.

We’ve now seen the final space shuttle rocket into the heavens; what’s next?   Or, have the days of exploring our final frontier, finally come to an end?

30 Years of the NASA Shuttle Program, The Telegraph

A pair of recent articles from The Economist thinks that our days of deep space exploration, and manned missions to other worlds, are numbered:

The future… looks bounded by that new outer limit of planet Earth, the geostationary orbit. Within it, the buzz of activity will continue to grow and fill the vacuum. This part of space will be tamed by humanity, as the species has tamed so many wildernesses in the past. Outside it, though, the vacuum will remain empty. There may be occasional forays, just as men sometimes leave their huddled research bases in Antarctica to scuttle briefly across the ice cap before returning, for warmth, food and company, to base. But humanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded.

From the other article:

…the heroic phase of space exploration, with chiselled-jawed astronauts venturing where no man has gone before, inspiring schoolchildren and defending democracy (or socialism), is now a thing of the past.

The space race it seems, is over.  And, as President Obama’s new plans for NASA seem to indicate, it’s not a race our country will be competing in again; at least any time soon.  Future travel to space will take place in commercial space ships, or on Russian rockets.  Even re-supply missions for the international space station will be dependent on the space programs of other governments.  And as the following interview with former NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, makes clear; it’s not NASA’s fault…

Broadcast by CBS News on July 8th

As the following interview in the Boston Herald shows, not everyone is happy about scrubbing the shuttle program:

“It probably could have continued,” said Dr. Haym Benaroya, professor of probabilistic mechanics and aerospace/space structures at Rutgers University’s School of Engineering and the author of “Turning Dust to Gold: Building a Future on the Moon and Mars.”

“Now we’re in a situation where we have to lease space on the Russian rockets, which will cost $30 million, $40 million a person,” he said.

“It’s a shame that the country that put people on the moon now has to beg for a ride.”

NASA has attributed the end of the shuttle program to cost-cutting. Each of the 135 missions cost about $450 million. Building Endeavour cost $1.7 billion.


NASA's Budget

Infographic from The Economist, Into The Sunset;  Data from NASA

Atlantis mission heralds end to manned space exploration, is the lead of a recent article from the British Newspaper, The Telegraph that has a foreboding finality to it…

For the next few years, the Russians will keep the International Space Station going – but it is due to be decommissioned in 2020. The Chinese are thinking of a manned mission to the Moon, but have made no specific plans or pledges.

Buccaneering entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson are developing craft to take a few wealthy tourists into space, but only into a low – and brief – orbit.

When Atlantis finally returns to Earth, finishing the 135th mission in a Shuttle programme that started 30 years ago, the hopes of developing an easy and routine mode of space transportation will be at an end.

Space travel isn’t going away.  If only to launch and maintain the network of satellites we now have floating above our heads in low Earth orbit.  But space exploration…with distances so vast, and our technology still in its infancy; many people believe we have better things to spend money on.  And, in the end, it all comes back to who’s going to pay for it.  Without sufficient motivation, and with our exhausted world economy, The Economist believes humanity will keep close to home:

With luck, robotic exploration of the solar system will continue. But even there, the risk is of diminishing returns. Every planet has now been visited, and every planet with a solid surface bar Mercury has been landed on. Asteroids, moons and comets have all been added to the stamp album. Unless life turns up on Mars, or somewhere even more unexpected, public interest in the whole thing is likely to wane. And it is the public that pays for it all…

So, the question isn’t how important space exploration is to humanity, or America, or even our politicians.

The deciding factor will be how important it is to you…


From Youtube.

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Permanent link to this article: http://peterusagi.com/2011/07/11/final-days-final-frontier/

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