Thoughts on the last shuttle flight

In 1961, John F Kennedy placed a tremendous goal before the United States.  Make it to the moon before 1970.  Some will say that we put too much money and effort into this, but no one can deny the boost given to the economy nor the technological innovations that took place during the space program.

The miniaturization of electronics needed to meet the size and weight of spacecraft fueled our consumer electronics for the next 40 years.  If you watch some of the original news footage, an astronaut is showing Walter Cronkite the camera being used on the lunar surface.  It’s a hand-held camera smaller and lighter than any used by reporters.  Blazoned on the side is an RCA logo.  Not more than 6 years later, RCA introduces the first video camera for consumer use. 

In 1968, before we had even reached the moon, a second order of Saturn V rockets was cancelled by President Johnson.  With that decision, the hopes of having additional lunar missions or a permanent US presence in space was delayed for nearly 30 years.  In 1975, we launched the last Apollo mission, the Apollo-Soyuz mission.  At the time, the Space Shuttle was under development and glide testing got underway just 2 years later.  Delays in the program left the US without manned spaceflight capability for almost 6 years and doomed the Skylab space station.

With the last launch of the Space Shuttle today we are entering another period where the US lacks its own manned spaceflight capability.  We are relying on the Russians for transport to the International Space Station.  In my opinion this is a dangerous situation.  If they choose to, the Russians can raise the price per seat or even cut off access completely to the station. 

The best hope for the US manned space program lies with the private sector.  Even here however, NASA is placing roadblocks.  SpaceX ( has successfully demonstrated the capability to launch, maneuver, and successfully re-enter and recover a unmanned pressurized capsule.  The next mission was scheduled to demonstrate maneuvering around the ISS.  Due to the success of the last test flight, SpaceX has requested to skip that mission and move directly to a mission docking at the ISS; however NASA has rejected that request. 

SpaceX is currently working on an emergency escape system for its Dragon capsule.  Unlike previous manned spacecraft, this escape system is being designed as thrusters built onto the capsule.  This provides escape separation capability all the way to orbit not just during the initial lift phase.   In addition, SpaceX sees this being used during landing/re-entry to provide land based landing as opposed to sea recovery.  It is anticipated that SpaceX will be ready for a manned mission by 2015, a mere 4 years away.

Private enterprise in America has always allowed for greater innovation.   Once free of the bureaucracy and politics associated with government programs, I’m sure we will see faster development and more innovation.  One only needs to look at the computer industry to see this.

One final thought – $1 Billion of the 2009 Federal Stimulus was allocated to NASA, mostly to allow for 2 additional shuttle flights.  If we had placed $50 billion with NASA, what kind of innovation or programs would have come out of that?

What are your thoughts on the impact of the last shuttle flight and the loss of US manned spaceflight capability?