Amidst The Gently Falling Foam

SPACE_SHUTTLE.sff_NY119_20050728185918.jpgAs you’ve undoubtedly heard, the current space shuttle flight was plagued by chunks of foam falling from the external fuel tank during launch. Only minimal damage has occurred to the orbiter (the shuttles themselves seem quite sturdy–it’s always the external tank that misbehaves), but it doesn’t seem that the old problems have been adequately fixed. I think it’s time to bring the Era of the Shuttle to a close and let the new space mavericks take the yoke.

Despite the tragic loss of two crews along with their expensive orbiters, the shuttle program has been an incredible success. Apart from all the important on-board experiments carried out over the years, the shuttles have brought us one giant leap closer to a permanent presence in space. They helped make space flight more of an everyday thing and provided lots of data on how humans can live and work effectively in a zero-g environment. But NASA obviously needs a vacation from the hard work they’ve put into the shuttle program, especially since others are now prepared to continue this work.

Private companies such as Scaled Composites are helping to open space to commercial ventures that will build on the groundwork (or should we call it skywork?) laid by NASA. These companies should be the ones to develop and construct the massive space stations long-imagined by both scientists and science fiction writers. This will free NASA to concentrate on missions of hard scientific research, such as space and planetary probes (consider the success of recent expeditions to Mars, Saturn and a comet), Earth studies and the eventual mission to Mars. There’s no doubt that scientific research will be the main focus of space stations, but this will be rather safe research that doesn’t necessarily push the far boundaries of science. NASA excels at pushing these boundaries, so they should concentrate on their strengths and leave the rest to someone else.

I’m sure that NASA’s glory days in space aren’t over. In about 20 years we’ll see some amazing technological advancements in interplanetary space travel, and these advancements will once again be led by NASA and based on the research and development of private U.S. companies and the scientific breakthroughs of other countries. Once the Discovery and her crew return safely next Sunday, let’s rethink the future of space exploration and have a serious discussion about whether there’s room for the current shuttle program.

I’m sure The Smithsonian would love to have a few decommissioned shuttles on permanent display!


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