Posts Tagged With: space station

Into the Black

Remember 1981? Yes, it’s a bit fuzzy at this point, but that was the year that manned spaceflight became normal. On the 21st of April, the Space Shuttle Columbia rocketed into orbit. Over the next 30 years, 135 launches were made by the fleet. For the generations who grew up or were born during this era, astronauts traveling to and living in space (on board the International Space Station) became commonplace. This normalcy hid the difficulty and danger that were behind the curtain.

Rowland White‘s Into the Black recounts the epic effort to design and launch the shuttle. It took nearly as long and was every bit as difficult as the Apollo program. In some ways it was more so: Apollo components had to work once; the Shuttles had to survive the rigors of launch and space over and over.

White recounts how the shuttle program was the final project of the Apollo veterans. It was also a fusion of a canceled military space program – complete with astronauts and launch sites – that would be combined with the civilian side.  Technologies such as reusable rocket engines and protection from reentry were beyond state of the art. The drama that unfolded was every bit as exciting as what was told in From Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13.

Danger was never eliminated, but the later losses of the Challenger and Columbia were not, ironically, cause by failures of the orbiters. None of the shuttles ever failed, repeatedly surviving launch stresses and harsh environments that those of us earthbound cannot imagine.

While the shuttles never flew as frequently as envisioned, nor brought the costs of launch down, history will look back on them as making possible what comes next. We are already seeing the turnover of spaceflight to private companies. The International Space Station that the shuttles enabled is an orbital spaceport on the verge of becoming the staging point for new ventures. The government and politics often got in their own way in opening the frontier, but as Into the Black details, the astronauts of the Space Shuttles swung that door wide open.

Categories: Modern History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

But What of Our Future?

Here we often discuss history, but what of our future? I wonder this as the shuttle program ends and after reading the The Case for Mars. The exploration of space is adrift, blown about by the shallow whims of politicians only interested in making it to the next election.

Will the lessons of history that tell us of the perils of short-sightedness ever impact the feeble minds of Washington?

Rome. China. The Middle East. All, often for centuries, turned their backs on the future for many regrettable reasons. Space travel held so much promise in the 1960s to turn people away from killing each other and enter into a prosperous adventure exploring a new frontier. Even though Apollo was largely born out of Cold War politics and launched on military technology, it was of such scale that it had Earth-changing potential.

Then it was ended.

Nixon canceled the last missions even though most of the hardware was already paid for or built. Then started decades of going nowhere, trapped in low-earth orbit. Nearly each president releasing a “vision” for the future then abandoning it. Plan after plan with no purpose other than to secure short-term votes only to have the next leader trash it. Note how they put goals so far out in the future that it would not matter if it failed or not. One of President Obama’s current “visions” is men visiting asteroids by 2025.

2025? This could be done by 2017. Asteroids are rich in mineral resources, yet as long as the government runs the show with their fake plans, we will never get there. The Moon has enough helium-3 to fuel the world for generations. Yet we still fight over gas and oil and hope for the best.

When will a politician come along with real vision? Not worried about making it to the next election? Someone who can explain why the final frontier is valuable and attainable? A person who pushes the government out of the way and lets the people take control?

Certainly the shuttle had its successes. It was an amazing vehicle that flew for three decades. It was also an engineering nightmare with too many compromises. Too much promised and too many eggs in one basket. The technical marvel, the International Space Station, is also an achievement. It also is underutilized and without direction. It almost became like, “Let’s get it finished, have it orbit a few years, then figure something out.” Its value as proving ground for private space efforts or Mars exploration is grossly unused.

Not that it is needed to go to Mars. The Case for Mars proved that. It also proved it doesn’t take decades or unimaginable amounts of money. NASA briefly pursued it and for a few short years began to embrace simpler, commonsense approaches to exploring Mars and the Moon. Then the superbrains of Washington intervened once again.

The government bailed out companies and banks that did everything wrong, but what of the space workers? The people who invested in our future? The people that did everything right and what was asked of them? The people who wanted to do so much more?

There are glimmers of hope as the private space industry finally emerges from underneath the crushing weight of the government and industry giants (i.e. SpaceX). But will someone in this election year actually stand up and provide a real vision? Not another fabricated feel-good plan that requires us to start from scratch again?

This isn’t new or hard. We did it over 30 years ago. Let’s leave our children something other than crushing debt and a legacy bereft of any forward-thinking.

Who will answer the challenge?

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: