Via BadAstronomy, a tribute to NASA’s space shuttle program, now one for the history books. And although I don’t agree with much of Ronald Reagan’s politics, he’s absolutely right in this video.
I won’t deny that the shuttle program has fallen short of its expectations, and in many ways can be seen as a failure. Instead of expanding the frontier of human space exploration and reaching for Mars and beyond, the shuttles stayed stuck in low Earth orbit and — as Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to point out — “went boldly where hundreds have gone before.”
Nevertheless, they were a powerful visible symbol of humanity’s continuing desire to reach up and be connected to space — and played an essential role in launching and later repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, which actually did connect us to space and exponentially expanded our knowledge of the known universe. And they were an inspiration for millions of schoolkids — many of whom became scientists themselves, making important advances in countless fields — whose love of science and discovery was first awakened by images of humans hurling their ships toward the stars. (And, okay, by dinosaurs too.) The shuttles may have been more successful as symbols than in actually advancing the frontier of space — but I wouldn’t discount the power of symbols to shape the dreams and direction of a society.
So, what now? Nicholas de Monchaux is optimistic about the future of human spaceflight, one that is unshackled from the stifling constraints and frightening geopolitical pressures that shaped previous programs. Rather than mourn the end of a program whose “institutional culture and mismanaged expectations […] contributed, not once but twice, to the destruction of craft and crew,” he celebrates the design of the spacesuit: “a literal patchwork of improvisations and adaptations, the kind of invention that typically takes place in the garage, not the lab.” The spacesuit, he argues, exemplifies a “soft” approach — “ad hoc, individualistic, pragmatic” — whose spirit better serves our pioneer ambitions to blaze new trails into space:
Despite the shuttle’s extraordinary achievements, it came to illustrate how ill-suited the military-industrial enterprise is to the only enduring rationales for manned spaceflight: heroism, pure delight and the essential expansion of human possibility.
As entrepreneurial endeavors like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic arise to fill our new gap in manned spacecraft, we have reason to be optimistic. In the same farewell address in which he cautioned against the undue influence of “the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower also issued a second, less-remembered warning, against the related prospect of a world in which a “government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”
Such curiosity and its astonishing consequences, as exemplified by the Apollo spacesuit, is likely to flourish more richly outside the organizational constraints and corporate shell of post-Apollo NASA. And so will continue to inspire us all.
I hope he’s right.