Today the last NASA space shuttle finished it’s trip to the International Space Station (ISS.) While we have not ruled out space travel for Americans all-together, the end of the shuttle missions certainly marks the end of an era. For the last 30 years NASA missions have served as one of the most expensive scientific pep-rallies in the history of man. And one of the coolest.
But as a result of the end of “space shuttling” (expensive public transportation?) Russia will have practically exclusive rights over the transportation of astronauts to the ISS. At $43.4 million per seat, I have to wonder if the end of our program really spells long term savings… That all depends. But as a possible solution to the Russian monopoly the US has invested in some private-sector rocket scientists (yes, really) who plan to be able to shuttle astronauts to the ISS for just $20 million a seat. Oh! Okay, that’s a big relief. Now the cost of space travel is family-friendly.
Interestingly enough, as the US shrugs off manned space-flight, many other countries are taking it on. China, for example, is a relative new-comer to the game having only sent their first man into space in 2003 and their latest being in 2008. For newbies though, they have some pretty audacious ambitions. They want their own permanent space station in orbit by about 2020 or 2022.
India has also put one of their fingers in the space pie, launching their first moon probe in 2008. And now they are planning to send their first unmanned space misson to Mars by 2015. Iran, of all countries, is just preparing to enter the “monkey phase” of aeronautics. After all, they have some experience: Last year they successfully put a rat, two turtles and a few worms into space. No, that wasn’t a joke, but you can still laugh.
Is the US leaving manned space flight just when it is getting interesting, or have we just grown-up and seen that the cost-benefit ratio is not good enough? Well, we do have some pretty massive debt. And besides, what has our shuttle program really done lately? The latest “discovery” was water on the moon — and that wasn’t even us, that was India. But it is also true that the US space program has been a symbol of American greatness. We put a man on the moon! We out-did the Russians exploring a new frontier! It’s all true, but for how long can we cling to that aging, tattering image? Especially when we’ve got such a bummer of a President.
Remember though, this isn’t the end of American space travel itself. This is the end of our space shuttle program. Space exploration is a paragon of American Exceptionalism. With better national leadership maybe we can beat ’em all to Mars. Shall we?