With just a day left before the last flight in NASA’s ambitious space shuttle program, the question many people are asking, or at least ought to be, is this: Was it all worth it?
The uncomfortable questions…
The space shuttle program began immediately after the 1969 Moon landing, an event often deemed as the escalation of the Space Race between USA and erstwhile USSR.
Yes, the space shuttle program was what won it for the Americans; it was a brilliant follow-up of the giant leap of mankind. Yet, the question lingers. Is merely winning the space race compensation enough for an estimated $209 billion spent till the end of 2010? What about the 14 lives lost on two failed manned missions? More importantly, what happened to the initial promise of 50 launches a year, which petered down to an average of no more than 9 annual launches? Was the expenditure of more than double of the estimated $92 billion justified? Thorny questions face NASA, but NASA would rather focus on the future.
Figures: The true and the unrealistic ones
Let’s look at the figures a bit more closely. Space launches were supposed to be made weekly, totalling about 50 launches a year. That figure stands at a mere 9 as the program ends a disappointing failure by all accounts. From 1981 (the first launch) till 2010, 133 missions have been launched, bringing the average cost of each launch to a staggering $1.57 billion. What does NASA really have to show for it? What has really been achieved? The argument that we just don’t know the various achievements of NASA falls flat on its face since NASA is not known to be too discreet. Publicity is one thing NASA is good at.
The reality facing America and the rest of the world is stark: since the 1969 Moon Landing, we’ve been stuck closer to Earth. Sure, there have been repeated Lunar Missions, but has Man gone anywhere new?
In 1969, NASA had presented President Nixon with various proposals, including a space station, which would be a jumping off point for Mars, eventually paving the way for manned space missions to the Red Planet. Also, in the list of suggestions, was a Lunar Landing Base so that return to Earth was no longer necessary. This would have saved huge expenses in the long run, as re-entry is one of the costliest and most dangerous parts of any space mission. Then, there was the shuttle. Nixon ratified just the shuttle, citing lack of funds to support any of the others. The heating up of the Cold War worsened the fund crunch for NASA, as Nixon slashed funds further in 1972, right at a time when things were just beginning to move off of the drawing board. It would be another decade before the first space flight in the mission took place.
Was NASA being unrealistic and not merely ambitious? Could NASA have ever launched 50 flights in a year, after spending years preparing for the Apollo mission? Embellished with tags of being ambitious, safe and cost-efficient when it started out, the shuttle program seems to have failed on all three counts.
But let’s take a more positive look. Who could have dreamt of the International Space Station one and a half decades ago? It is the first habitable place outside Earth and, when NASA started building it in 1998, it promised a lot. True, many of those promises were not kept, but then, in active research, not all promises can be kept. It is an orbiting lab and provides an environment for microgravity experiments, which many believe will foster future research in fields like medicine. It’s one of a kind. Much of the shuttle program has been devoted to building up this unique behemoth.
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.