The final Space Shuttle landed the other day, leading to much lamentation over the end of the program, all over the Internet. It was absolutely choking my Twitter feeds for a while, which is mostly what I was thinking about when I re-tweeted this snide comment from Robert Lamb (though, to be fair, most of the people choking my Twitter feeds with Shuttle-related comments are space obsessives anyway, so it’s not that new). I got a little grief for that over in locked LiveJournal land, so I thought I might as well say a bit more about it here.
While there is some part of me that feels a little sad seeing the Shuttle program end– I remember staying home from school (multiple days) to watch the first Shuttle launch, and the Challenger disaster is one of those never-forget-where-I-was moments– on the whole, I’m not convinced that its end is a bad thing. The Shuttle was a ridiculous kludge from the start, and never accomplished much of anything. As Lawrence Krauss writes in the Guardian:
Either aboard the shuttle or the International Space Station, astronauts have explicitly demonstrated that what we learn from sending people into space is not much more than how people can survive in space. The lion’s share of costs associated with sending humans into space is devoted, as it should be, to making sure they survive the voyage. No other significant science has been learned by a generation’s worth of round trips in near-earth orbit.
More than that, I would say that we’ve learned that, contrary to what older generations of SF writers assumed for decades, being in space kind of sucks. Spending long amounts of time in microgravity does Bad Things to humans. There aren’t going to be orbiting retirement communities for the elderly to experience the rejuvenating effects of life without gravity (as lots of older SF stories have), because there aren’t any such effects. It might be fun to visit, but it’s not someplace you want to live permanently.
So, it’s really not clear to me why we’re supposed to be all broken up about losing the Shuttle. It was a giant cash sink, sucking up tons of money that would’ve been better spent on just about anything else.
If there were some concrete purpose to manned space flight, I might feel differently, but there really isn’t at the moment.
“But we need to be able to leave the planet!” And go… where? Life in microgravity sucks, and we are so far from being able to sustain colonies on other planets that it’s not even funny. And the Shuttle wasn’t providing any meaningful progress toward that goal– Karl Schroeder comes in for some mockery for his space-related guest post at Charlie Stross’s blog, and not without cause. But at least Karl thinks big– had the Shuttle been supporting that kind of research, I might’ve been more in favor of it. There’s still no pressing need for colonies on the Moon or Mars, but it’d be nice to have some real data about how they might work, if only as a reality check on whack jobs writing popular books about how easy it ought to be.
“There are vast untapped resources in the asteroid belt!” Yes, and we need them for what, exactly? If we had a foolproof scheme for reversing climate change that just needed a billion tons of nickel to make it work, I’d be as fired up about mining the belt as anybody else. But it’s not clear to me that there’s enough need for those resources to justify the expense of dragging all that stuff back here.
“We have a human drive to explore!” Yes, and it’s being filled admirably by robots at the moment. We have obtained infinitely more useful scientific data from the Mars rovers, Pioneer and Voyager, Cassini, Galileo, and all the rest than almost anything Shuttle-related. The possible exception is the Hubble Space Telescope, and I say “possible” because a telescope in space is not something that inherently requires manned space flight. As Krauss notes, it probably would’ve been cheaper to launch a replacement Hubble on an unmanned rocket than to maintain the Shuttle for the sake of fixing the one that’s up there.
(None of this, by the way, depends on NASA being a large inflexible government bureaucracy, so spare me the long lecture about the wonders of private space flight. The Shuttle was an unholy mess, and getting rid of it may improve the efficiency of launching things into orbit, but that doesn’t make the reasons for going there any more compelling. And getting there remains a hard problem– there’s a reason why “rocket science” is one of our metaphorical yardsticks for difficulty, after all.)
So, basically, we’re giving up the capability to do something that there’s no really compelling reason to do. Which I really can’t get all that worked up about. And that, in turn, makes me a little cranky about people suddenly getting all misty-eyed about a space program that they never much cared about when it was working. Hence yesterday’s retweet.
I’m not saying that higher tv ratings or more Internet downloads of Shuttle launch footage would’ve justified continuing the program, mind. But had more people been paying more attention to the program, that might’ve provided a mechanism to push things in a more useful direction. Instead, everybody was content to tune out and let NASA fritter away vast sums of money on nothing in particular. There hasn’t been any real point to the manned space program for a while now, but the general public retains a vague positive association with the idea, and act all surprised and sad when it suddenly stops. Had people been paying more attention all along, we might’ve gotten a more useful manned space program, or stopped it altogether a while back, and steered the money to more useful activities.
Really, in the end, the worst effects of this are second-hand. The loss to society in general from stopping the Shuttle is pretty well zero, and the direct loss to science is not a whole lot bigger. But the money that the Shuttle was sucking up isn’t going to come back to the parts of NASA that actually do good science, and there are lots of scientists and engineers whose jobs are going to go away with the end of the program. And that will be bad for science as a whole. But not for any reason related to space itself.