Research isn’t a quick open-and-shut process. Integral to it is bumping into dead ends, but still seeking other alleys. Insights take time to occur and longer to materialize. Given that zero-G research is still in its infancy and that the public is not really a great audience for cutting edge scientific research, much is unknown and limited to scientific circles.
Arguably, the greatest of the achievements of the shuttle program has been the Hubble Space Telescope. Initially handicapped with an incorrectly positioned parabolic mirror that rendered Hubble, billed as the best eye in space, myopic, NASA put forward a bold plan to launch an audacious space mission, involving space walks, to correct the alignment. Hubble has never looked back. History is a witness to the rest. Maybe the greatest contribution of the shuttle program is this: the courage and audacity to try something never tried before.
However, brushing aside all allegations of failure on grounds of cost or limited number of annual flights, the real allegation against the shuttle program has been that it has made NASA too near-sighted. NASA has concentrated so much on this one program and the International Space Station, its offshoot, that it has shelved almost all other projects. Maybe a few more of the Voyager type projects would have helped.
Clearly, NASA had set itself unrealistic dreams. But let’s be fair. The shuttle program need not be thought of as a restriction, but as a launch pad for greater missions in future. True, out of the five vehicles, two were destroyed in fiery accidents. Challenger went in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, leaving the world gasping in shock and ending the lives of 14 brilliant minds. Safe? What is safe in an enterprise fraught with obvious risks and greater ones, more subtle? It is a field in which small mistakes result in tragic, irreversible mishaps. The room for error is too small. Physicist and panelist on the Challenger disaster investigation panel, Richard Feynman had rightly noted, For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. The cost of an attempt at foolery is too much. Any space agency walks a very fine line.
As Atlantis waits patiently on Pad39A at the Kennedy Space Center for a final hurrah, both for itself and the shuttle program, the International Space Station continues to orbit Earth, an antimatter detector sits on it patiently mapping the cosmos for anomalies that might give crucial clues towards solving the long-standing puzzles in physics, scientists around the world gaze up and see the Universe as seen in Microwave frequency, thanks to COBE (another of the gifts of the shuttle program) and numerous school children develop aspirations of becoming an astrophysicist, awed by images from Hubble.
In a scientific enterprise, success is not only a result of blinding intelligence or intense hard work. No matter how important these might be, of paramount importance is having the courage to embark on something never attempted before. NASA’s shuttle program might be judged harshly by Time, but it will always stand as a model of pioneering audacity man’s first fulfilment of a dream as old as humanity itself.