Much of the coverage of the final Space Shuttle mission has been linked to an apparent demise of human spaceflight. The feeling that we are cutting our ties to space and giving in. This, of cause, is fundamentally not true. I believe the end of the space shuttle is a good thing, allow me a few words to tell you why.
1. The Space Shuttle has had it’s day.
The craft is over thirty years old, it’s tired, two of them are no more and it can only take us to low earth orbit. The craft was vital when we were building the International Space Station, because we needed a space truck to take stuff up there, but the Space Station is now complete, we dont need the boot/trunk (depending on what side of the Atlantic you are on) anymore. What we do need is a craft that can take us beyond low earth orbit, and we can’t build that and keep the space shuttle going.
2. The Soyuz is reliable enough.
The Soviets might have designed the thing years ago but it’s one of the most reliable machines humans have ever built, we’ve lost fewer humans to Soyuz failures than we have Space Shuttles. I would be happy to rely on them as the workhorse of the ISS over the next few years, because thats what they did throughout Mir and that’s what they’ve done when the shuttle has been out of action. The European’s ATV is also a brilliant craft and Japan’s HTV is just as useful and can easily compensate for the lack of shuttle.
The worry about the Russians is being pushed by the traditional media in the states who hate the idea of teaming up with an old enemy.
3. The private craft look amazing.
Virgin Galactic aside the rest of the private space industry is taking the possibility of taking humans to the ISS really seriously. I cannot see what the Americans are moaning about, they normally love a bit of private industry taking over.
Finally while the Space Shuttle is iconic, a brilliant piece of kit, forged out of raw innovation (the first spacecraft to take off like a rocket and land like a plane remember) it is time to let go. Let’s slim down our government sponsored space industry and give everyone else a chance. If we were still flying the shuttle NASA would have to decide between keeping that going and choosing a cheaper private option, an option that really needs a NASA contract to survive.
I love the Space Shuttle as much as every other space geek, and I will be there to see it take off. But just like we needed the Mercury and Gemini missions before we could go to the moon, we needed the space shuttle and space station before we can go to Mars, we had to learn to live in space. We’ve learnt as much the shuttle can teach us, let’s move on.
This is a crossroads in the history of human spaceflight, but I’m not looking left or right, I’m looking up.