So the party’s over. Yesterday at 10.56am BST, the Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center, thus bringing to an end Nasa’s 30-year experiment in reusable spacecraft. “It’s been an incredible ride,” said Chris Ferguson, the pilot. He feigned optimism, but couldn’t explain what happens next. “It’s a little sad because we’re saying goodbye to an old friend.”
The Shuttle was indeed an old friend. It brings to mind that dysfunctional pal most of us have – the handsome, carefree guy who can’t hold down a job, but manages to camouflage his inadequacies with style and bravado. In the same way, Nasa yesterday Twittered lots of impressive numbers about Atlantis (33 flights, 4,848 orbits and 125,935,769 miles), but woefully failed to explain what had been achieved.
The Shuttle story should really be titled “Lost in Space”. About $210 billion went towards a programme born of fantasy. The story came to an end because the American government finally accepted what experts realised at the beginning: strip away the drama of manned space travel, and the Shuttle is an expensive and complicated way to provide what should be a cheap and simple service.
The Shuttle arose from a dilemma. After Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Nasa needed something new to sustain space enthusiasm and keep mediocrity at bay. Mars seemed the next step. But a ship capable of going there could not simply be placed on top of a Saturn V rocket and blasted skyward. A huge craft would have to be constructed in orbit by astronauts bolting bits together. That effort would be wasteful, costly and time-consuming if each component had to be flown skyward in disposable rockets. A reusable space ferry seemed the answer.
From this tiny seed of fantasy, the Shuttle grew. Nasa loved the idea because it kept the manned space adventure alive. Richard Nixon liked it for similar reasons. The president wanted to cut Nasa’s budget but worried about surrendering space spectaculars to the Soviet Union. He understood that, in order to remain interesting, space still needed a face. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the rest of the story, on the Daily Telegraph website.