Should The Space Shuttle Be Retired?

After more than a quarter century as the mainstay of America’s space program, the three remaining space shuttle orbiters, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor, are scheduled to be retired by mid-year 2011. This is a source of controversy for some, who argue that America’s status as the leader in space exploration may be severely crippled because there is no replacement for the orbiter fleet, and the next generation of space exploration vehicles is still four or five years away.

Fortunately, there continues to be talk in the halls of Congress about extending the program throughout 2011 and even through 2012, effectively minimizing the gap in US spaceflight capability. NASA could do this with very little in the way of additional costs, as they already have a spare external fuel tank available, which could be used in a “launch-on-need” basis for any remaining flights.

Aside from the obvious benefit of extended the nation’s spaceflight capacity, keeping the shuttle program alive for another year or two would also affect the Houston area economy, where thousands of jobs are directly tied to the shuttle program.

There are legitimate criticisms of the Shuttle’s place in our space program, namely that for its entire career, it was only built to do one thing….orbit the earth. The end result in the opinion of many was billions of dollars wasted with little to show in the way of genuine exploration, wasting many years and resources that could have been focused on returning to the moon or preparing a manned expedition to Mars.

In addition, the Shuttle was designed with quick turnaround times in mind, with the goal of conducting dozens of launches every year. That lofty goal quickly deteriorated into the common three or four missions a year that we have seen for the duration of the Shuttle’s tenure.

On the plus side, the Shuttle program was a public relations success, establishing an American presence in space with a regularity not seen since the Apollo days, and proving itself to be a reliable workhorse, ferrying satellites to and from orbit, as well as transporting supplies and personnel to the International Space Station, not to mention the launch of the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

Unfortunately, if the Shuttle program is indeed retired, with a gap of several years before the next manned US spaceflight, we will effectively return dominance in the space race to the Russians who, while currently our friends, are still a former enemy with questionable allegiance. Not to mention the reliability and quality control of Russian spacecraft has a less than impressive track record (Russia’s counterpart to the shuttle, the Buran, only had one unmanned flight before the program was canceled).

In an ideal world, the Shuttle program should have been phased out slowly, while at the same time ushering in the next generation of space exploration technology. Such a scenario is still not without precedent. The shuttle fleet could be upgraded as far as equipment and technology for a minimal cost, and conceivably extended for another four or five years, plenty of time to get the next phase of our space travel projects off the ground and running.

In the space race of the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s, the United States exhibited drive, ambition, and determination, leapfrogging over the Russians who had beaten us into space to not only becoming the first (and so far only) nation to land a man on the moon, but in becoming the recognized leader in space exploration and innovation. The question to be asked is, “is this a role we are comfortable giving up?”

It doesn’t get much more basic than that.

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