Space Shuttle Landing Has Scary Implications

The space shuttle Atlantis landed in Florida one last time today, after its final scheduled mission. Atlantis is part of an aging fleet that the Obama administration will retire this year. The Discovery and Endeavour shuttles are expected to make their last trips this year as well.

Atlantis may be used in rescue missions in the next couple of years. After that, the space shuttle will probably retired to a museum. Bloomberg Businessweek has more:

The space shuttle program was canceled under President George W. Bush’s Constellation plan, which envisioned a return to the moon in a new spacecraft as a steppingstone to further exploration of the solar system.

President Barack Obama in February announced a plan for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that would scrap Constellation and direct the agency to focus instead on developing rocket systems that might eventually take humans into deep space. Private companies would build vessels to carry astronauts into orbit, especially to the space station, under that program.

Some astronauts are opposing the Obama plan, as are the states where NASA operations are based, particularly Texas and Florida, according to Bloomberg Businessweek:

(Astronaut Neil) Armstrong and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden are among witnesses scheduled to testify today during a hearing on the president’s plan before the House Committee on Science and Technology in Washington.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill in March that would extend funding for the shuttle as work continues on the next generation of space vehicles. Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which serves as mission control for U.S. human space flight.

States defending their NASA bases isn’t the only economic reason we should be concerned about the space shuttle program going dormant. Space exploration is a powerful symbol, especially when it’s visible to the public. From the looks of it, America’s space program won’t be visible, at least for a little while.

That’s scary, especially in a time of economic decline. If our program appears to go dormant, we’re giving other countries room to take our leadership position. China, India, and Russia all have active space programs, and they’re not saving a seat for us.

The New York Times’ Freakonomics has a great post on additional reasons we should take space exploration seriously as an economic force:

…our future scientific and technological leadership depends on exciting creativity in the younger generations. Nothing does this better than manned space exploration. There is now a national urgency to direct the creative interests of our youth towards careers in science and engineering.

Economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment. … Royalties on NASA patents and licenses currently go directly to the U.S. Treasury, not back to NASA.

Right now, all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That’s pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on…Money alone is not a way to gauge the worthiness of the cost of exploring space.

Asking if space exploration — with humans or robots or both — is worth the effort is like questioning the value of Columbus’s voyages to the New World in the late 1490s. The promise at the time was obvious to some, but not to others. Is manned space exploration worth the cost? If we Americans do not think so, then why is it that nations such as China and India — nations with far greater social welfare issues to address with their limited budgets — are speeding up their space exploration programs?

I agree that space exploration should be a visible priority. It would be an especially powerful morale booster during today’s recession. It’s the one area where I wouldn’t mind if politicians spent a lot of money just to do something symbolic.