July 21st, 2011
09:00 PM ET

NASA's still looking up

AFP/Getty Images

Part of me had hoped the crew of space shuttle Atlantis would go rogue and refuse to return to Earth. Maybe just for a short joyride, a few extra orbits and the proud proclamation, "You'll never clip our wings!"

But the astronauts landed right on schedule. It marked a safe and successful close to NASA's 30-year shuttle program.

Space fans around the world are experiencing mixed emotions with this milestone. Some say it's a sad day for America, left without a way of lifting humans into orbit. They remark with irony that Russia has now won the space race, as U.S. astronauts will be forced to buy rides on  Soyuz.

Others are posting comments that call the shuttle a waste of money and effort.  They want a mission to Mars... and believe the shuttle program distracted NASA from that goal. Low earth orbit, or LEO, should be left to private companies while the government focuses on much farther distances.

No matter which of those sides you're on, the core problem is the same: there is no current successor to the shuttle. And that's what makes this "transition period" so nerve-wracking for NASA supporters.

Nothing compares to the awe of watching astronauts blast off from Earth. And that might not happen from the U.S. until 2016 according to Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations at NASA.

Gerstenmaier says, "I recognize that change is very hard. But huge growth, or huge improvement, really comes from change."

Or to put it another way, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." (Yeah, I turn to late-90's music for emotional support. Thank you, Semisonic.)

But the last word should really go to STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson. Shortly after landing, he radioed this message to Mission Control. “The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world. It’s changed the way we view the universe. One thing’s indisputable, America’s not going to stop exploring.

"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis. Thank you for protecting us, and bringing this program to such a fitting end."

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Filed under: General • Space
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Larry Parmeter

    It's a misconception that there will be no Americans in space until NASA's new spacecraft, the MPCV, or whatever it'll be called, is ready, maybe by 2015, probably later. Americans will be back in space in October, and at least six a year will go to and spend time aboard the International Space Station, via Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In the meantime, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is now scheduled to start sending Americans(and others) on sub-orbital space rides as early as next year; Space-X's Dragon will launch Americans into Earth orbit maybe in 2013; Frank Bigelow's Sundancer "Space Hotel" is scheduled to start manned operations as early as 2014; as is Sierra-Nevada Corporation's Dreamchaser mini-shuttle, which may fly Americans to ISS and back. And Boeing's CTS-100 spacecraft will be ready for manned spaceflight in 2015. So, there'll be lots of Americans going into space in the next several years. They just won't be doing it aboard NASA sponsored spacecraft.

    July 21, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  2. KenRInAZ

    What is it we mourn? What fills us with sorrow, trepidation and despair about the end of the Shuttle era? It isn’t the vehicle itself for that explanation is far too superficial. Yes, we will miss the Shuttle. In spite of considerable design compromises forced by fiscal and scheduling constraints it was an amazing space craft. The astronauts, scientists, engineers, technicians and countless others that directly or indirectly supported the Shuttle were a testament to what inspired people can achieve.

    Think beyond the next year, consider the next decade or century. Those of us that have experienced the birth of NASA, the challenge and inspiration of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle have a message for you.

    What NASA has been launching for the past 53 years was much more then rockets, astronauts, or anything physical. What took flight inspired a world. It moved countless hundreds of thousands individuals to careers in science, engineering and technology. Yet even this only scratches the surface. Each time the once impossible was overcome it was for all humanity; past, present and future. These accomplishments are bigger than any one nation, people or time; they were – for all mankind.

    NASA routinely, yet not without tremendous effort, dedication and at times cost (sometimes in human life) transformed the impossible into possible and shared it with the world. Human space exploration taught millions upon millions the only real limits we have are those of our own choosing. I don’t believe there is a better lesson to teach our children or their children – anywhere.

    How do you calculate the benefit of inspiring a generation, a planet and more? Those of us, privileged to have lived though this time in history intrinsically know, we feel the magnitude of benefits space exploration has bestowed on the entire planet for all humanity.

    I’m an optimist in believing this lapse of vision and courage won’t last long in historical perspective. I deeply regret the time that will be wasted; opportunities postponed, the nation that is suddenly smaller by our own hand. I grieve for humanity that hungers for inspiration but will have to wait, needlessly. The human spirit has exploration woven into its DNA. Space exploration isn’t just an option; it’s ultimately necessary for our survival.

    We the people – do not lack the resources or will to imagine and make the next era of space exploration a reality. What sickens the soul and threatens to darken the immediate future of critical science, technology and humanities advancement is an eclipse of imagination, vision, courage and wisdom in our leaders to define the next era in space exploration. May our children and their children forgive us and our current leaders for being so small minded.

    July 22, 2011 at 6:22 am | Reply
  3. Alex

    Once the States lost a big part of its ledendary car industry, sold its Hollywood studios, moved most manufacturing to China, ... – the change in Space Shuttle program should not already nerve you so much.
    Life is going on. New days will bring new opportunities.
    It's just our life. Lets enjoy and focus on future challenges.
    Kudos to NASA heroes. Kudos to Russian heroes.
    See you, ISS!

    July 22, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply

    I have been watching NASA's programs since i was 10. I really recommend and Hail NASA for such an Incredible Space Schooling Programs. I am a Very Clever Boy who value and cherish Inventors and their Achievements. I had wanted to be an Inventor one day but that dream died when my Only Mother who Was caring for me Died so early and 39 when i was also 5. I wish America Long Give, NASA long live so that they could do such wonderful things for me to learn and value. Thanks

    July 22, 2011 at 10:23 am | Reply
  5. Mauricio Vidal

    I was thrilled while watching Young and Crippen going upwards on STS 1 Columbia. I was shocked with Challenger and Columbia. I logged everytime I could to NasaTV to watch live images of the shuttle's missions and ISS docking. Nasa and the shuttle program have encouraged so many people in the world to learn about our planet, our enviroment and space. Nasa and all the countries involved with space program should embark on the Mission to Mars. Nasa should think about sending one of the shuttles to the moon and leave it there with provisions for future lunar and who knows probably mars missions. Thanks for the ride to space.

    July 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  6. Fred Ziddah

    The Shuttle has done it's work. it has come with untold sacrifices, a venture that cost billions of dollars that could have been channeled else where but the knowledge gained is very, extremely invaluable. Kudos to the men and women who lived on great dreams at NASA and the other agencies.

    July 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  7. Robert

    i don't believe nasa will be able to do it.

    August 4, 2011 at 9:29 am | Reply
    • Laurent

      he believes the acdnaves in astrophysics and planetary science far outweigh the technological acdnaves that came as a result of the program. He cited the Magellan mission to Venus, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo probe to the Jupiter system as examples of space programs in which the space shuttle played a central role. These are just incredible instruments that have transformed astronomers' and society's view of the universe, Musser said.He points to the shuttle-delivered Hubble Space Telescope's discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace.The human quest for knowledge, exploration and the inventiveness is not anathema to conservatism. But perhaps to you Paul all of this is frivolousness. You probably would have told the Wright brothers that they needed to stop all that manned flight foolishness and concentrated on running their bike shop. When Columbus went to the king and queen of Spain, your type would have told them that there would be nothing to gain from funding such an endeavor when the money and ships could be better used at home. Your mindset would still have never led to the renaissance period. It is you who should be ashamed to be wasting your time on this newfangled internet when there are more useful things you could be doing with your time and money.@IvanYour hypothetical assumptions are irrelevant as the free market was indeed involved with supplying manufacturing and services for the NASA missions. Perhaps private industry could have eventually, (perhaps 30 or 50 years from now,) and less expensively created the integrated circuit. However in the mid 20th century there was no incentive for it. Nor would any company have ever considered a manned space program on their own, had it not been for the successes of NASA. You have the nerve to bring up the bloated budget of NASA yet you neglect to supply numbers and provide a comparison, so I will.The VIt’s a sobering plot, to be sure. Interestingly, they included the (inflation-adjusted) cost of both the Apollo missions and the running total of NASA’s budget since its inception in 1958.Adjusted for inflation to today's dollar (I.e. not the actual amount spent, but how much it would have cost today,) the total expenditures for NASA's entire 53-year lifetime has been $1.0882 trillion. NASA gets less than 1% of the US government's budget. Comparably the Credit Crisis bailout exceeded $4.6165 trillion dollars. Obama's stimulus plan cost the nation 3.27 trillion (or 278,000 per job). Considering everything we have gained from the space programs, (technology acdnaves and knowledge of our world and the universe,) NASA was a bargain.Nor do I believe that you or Paul are conservatives considering you are making the same anti-NASA arguments that progressive Democrats have for the last 50 years.Reply

      March 3, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply

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