Friday, July 08, 2011

What goes up, must come down: The United States ends its Space Shuttle program. Now what?

The Space Shuttle Atlantis took off today on the final mission of the Space Shuttle program, which has been launching the Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis into orbit since April of 1981.

I marginally remember watching the launch of the first space shuttle - the Columbia - when I was 8 years old, but for some reason, I never forgot the names of the two astronauts who flew that mission: John Young and Robert Crippen. Since that time, 355 astronauts have flown on 135 missions, with two of those missions ending in the destruction of the Challenger and Columbia, at the cost of 14 lives.

I am torn regarding the conclusion of the Space Shuttle missions. Being the free market guy I am, I believe that the private sector should be leading the way to space. There are still satellites to send up and, maybe someday, passengers to carry and asteroid minerals to mine... who knows what the possibilities are? But with the possibility to make a substantial profit, entrepreneurial men and women will figure it out. With NASA dominating the space race for the last 50 or so years, with its access to an almost endless supply of taxpayer largess, private enterprise couldn't quite compete against the U.S. government. Now that NASA is out of a job - save raising the self-esteem of Muslims - perhaps all these soon-to-be-out-of-work NASA engineers will find new life in the private sector.

What it boils down to is that while I am always uncomfortable with the government performing extra-constitutional functions that the private sector can and should perform, I do admit to harboring a special nostalgia and pride for our government space programs: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, Hubble Telescope, Mars Missions, solar system probes, and the International Space Station. For goodness sake, we put men on the moon! Yet, the Obama administration seems to have brought a glorious government program to an inglorious end. I feel like our space program deserves a more respectful conclusion. Instead, there is nothing in the hopper, nothing planned for the future (that I know of). The Obama administration comes off like a little kid who has had his fun with his space toy and just tosses it off to the side before moving on to something else.

On the other hand, I am feeling rather queasy thinking about a spacecraft plastered with sponsor stickers like some stock car at Daytona. I'll get used to it.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson

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