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Last Days of Rome

Much Ado About Space Shuttles

Nostalgia hit hard today as the space shuttle Atlantis touched down in Florida and, if you believe the hype, put an end forever to mankind’s efforts to glean what lay beyond the moon. This is all nonsense, of course, because the demise of the U.S. manned space flight program really only marks the beginning of the end of the first phase of the space race, the one which began with Sputnik and ended when the United States chose to send winged-Greyhound buses aloft to manipulate our own atmosphere rather than continue to pursue an Apollo-style program aimed at the vast universe beyond. There are two big reasons:

Unmanning: As in military affairs, it is fast becoming clear to the engineers at NASA that humans provide plenty of drama but not all that much extra science in space. More and more future missions will be robotic as better and better automation makes the risks and costs of launching astronauts into space less attractive. The U.S. program is likely to remain the most ambitious — and JFK-obsessed leaders will continue to promise putting a man on the moon by ever distant deadlines. But deep space probes and unmanned “landers” will do the real work.

Private Efforts: Google is famously offering $30 million as an inducement to get private space exploration off the ground. But some efforts already have taken wing. The most ambitious is Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s $200,000-a-ride suborbital space dream. A group called Moon Express wants to set up mining operations on our little satellite. NASA, which cancelled its own return to Luna program last year, has given Moon Express and two other would-be moon exploration firms $500,000 to help their efforts. These all seem rather nascent at this point, but even NASA was once just the twinkle in Robert Goddard’s eye.

Rebalancing: For the U.S., which until recently spent at an annual rate of about $18 billion on its space program, cuts to NASA’s budget (and the related budgets within the Pentagon) look like low hanging fruit next to Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare. But while the U.S. share of the global pie will shrink, that doesn’t mean the pie itself will  not grow.

Spending internationally is anything but falling. A particularly intelligent look at this can be found on Dennis’ Blog, written by NASA strategic planner. Russia appears intent on taking advantage of the U.S. withdrawal by offering its rockets as orbital delivery vehicles. China is surging ahead and its spending, as usual, is probably a great deal more than the published figure of $1.7 billion estimated 2010. Even still, that’s just under the approximately $2.3 billion Russia spends. India, in particular, has pushed its program to a new level in recent years. Brazil, the EU, Japan and South Korea will continue at healthy levels, and new entrants will continue to emerge (Algeria is the latest to announce it will launch a satellite).

Why are most of the propeller-heads that write about space getting this so wrong? Being American centric, the English language media invariably picks up on the syrupy tone of broadcast coverage by outlets like CNN, Fox and the three networks. Eulogitis is another cause: everyone likes a good  funeral — especially when it seems to be so pregnant with meaning. A decent antidote to this claptrap is James Oberg’s essay on what the future actually holds. Alan Boyle, whose “Cosmic Log” is the best of the general science category for my money, admirably refused to join the shuttle cortege. He did weigh in a few days ago with a look at the bull market for shuttle memorabilia, though.

For many, this was just another way to grind their old axes. The best example of this is from Bob Barr – no, not the cartoon elephant – the rampaging former congressional elephant, who hijacked the shuttle’s final  mission to rant about the deficit. “We lost the “space race” long ago — when as a nation we decided it was far more important to pay for cradle-to-grave social programs of all sorts, and to engage in multiple and costly military adventures around the world, than it was to focus seriously on manned space exploration.”

Whatever. The “race” in this question should be the human race, and if we define things that way, it looks very likely space will get its share of exploration even if its not always “Made in America.”

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