America in Space: An Ambivalent Future

By Scott Spangler on July 13th, 2011

 SilhouetteHaving grown up with the US space program (which celebrated the golden anniversary of Alan Shepard’s fight on May 5, 2011) and come of age when Apollo 11 touched the moon, I’m not sure how I feel about the final flight of Atlantis, which is writing the final chapter on the shuttle program and US spaceflight history.

In many ways it is like the final saddle-stitched (stapled) issue of Playboy. That was September 1985, and Madonna was on the cover. It appeared after Discovery launched several communications satellites in August on its next to last flight, and before the October flight of Atlantis, on the program’s second classified mission for the Department of Defense.

At the time I was ambivalent about the magazine’s change of bindery because not enough time had passed to see, understand, absorb, and appreciate its portent of coming changes in publishing technology, all of them driven by computers and their ability to communicate without paper. My feelings about the final shuttle flight are similar, but with a clearer   focus on what the future likely holds.

Succinctly, human space flight for exploration is over. Like aviation before it, spaceflight is a victim of its own success. It is now a business all about the bottom line. We are a half century past Teflon and Tang technology trickle-downs. Return on investment is what matters. Sending humans to do technology’s job increases the cost exponentially. Tomorrow’s space travelers will buy a ticket on Virgin Galactic, the Russians, or one of the nascent companies vying for the International Space Station cargo contract.

We are not the same nation once universally captivated by Project Mercury and, to increasingly lesser degrees, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle, and the ISS, which may keep operating until 2028. In place of unified national pride is polarized, parochial partisanship focused on a single, narrowly defined self-interest. The only thing they share is a prime directive: My Way or the Highway.

Like publishing after Madonna proudly displayed the last staple, America will continue to explore space. Better make that maybe. The only people really interested in exploration are scientists and the companies that make money off of it. The government will still have to fund it, and given our shared debt and political intractability in agreeing on fair and balanced solutions to it, maybe the American era of space exploration is over.

The romantic in me sees an American one day stepping on the surface of Mars. The realist snorts no way! And the pragmatist in charge suggests that both sides should look at the national trends revealed over the past half century and project them into the future. Yes, it is an ambivalent frontier. –Scott Spangler

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7 Responses to “America in Space: An Ambivalent Future”

  1. Chris Martin Says:

    Excellent article. I continue to hold out hope that there is enough energy left in the human imagination but each day that hope wanes. I predict that 2011 will either simply be the year the STS retired, or the year the decline of the American Empire officially began. Without spaceflight, we loose all that makes us who we are.

  2. Brad Says:

    I grew up in the space craze that surrounded the Shuttle’s first few launches, when everyone wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. And despite the fond memories I have of Shuttle launches, we have to be pragmatic. Do you see the debt the gov’t has put itself in? Programs need to be cut, and since SS and Medicare and benefits won’t be, things like the space program are going to be the first to be cut, and appropriately so. We can continue in the future, but it’s a victim of circumstance as much as it is a victim of, as the article points out, a lack of a useful return.

  3. @williamAirways Says:

    As much as it’s sad to see the space program come to a halt, I think we best focus our resources and energies on terra firma before we spend it on the above and beyond.

    It’s no secret we have a LOT of problems on this planet…no need to expand our problems elsewhere when we can’t even manage the ones on the home front.

  4. Frank N. Beans Says:

    True, Scott, it is a sad demise. My feeling is that we do not have the tolerance for risky ventures that we did in the 50s and 60s. We have a post on this topic at:

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Honest to goodness Scott … when I read this I almost wanted to cry.

    Not simply because we’ve lost a great space program that took us outside our own atmosphere and made us realize there might actually be something more important in the universe than America, but the fact that today, almost know one under 50 even understands what the heck I’m talking about when I mention Sputnik, or Apollo.

    Most folks have no idea what we’ve lost. That’s not just sad, that’s a crime.

  6. David R Says:

    I often wonder where we’d be if Apollo and the full Apollo Applications Projects had not been cancelled. What new technologies in space flight, materials, energy sources, computing power, etc. would we have that would have improved solving problems here on earth? The spin-offs from the space program are too numerous to mention, yet they are virtually ignored by everyone who complains about the cost of space exploration.

  7. Jess Caldern Says:

    Thanks Rob for saying “ALMOST”!! You know I’m 28 and last june I took my father to the Cape for what it had to be the last Shuttle launch. At the end it was rescheduled and we missed it but we had “the journey of a lifetime” visiting KSC and the visitor complex. My father saw Armstrong setting the foot on the Moon live through a black and white tv from Spain and covered all his bedroom walls with pictures of it. Today, we’r not so lucky, and politics (ie society) is not in favor of spending money in risky space EXPLORATION. But if WE want, this can change in the future. Dammit you are americans! Stand up like you’ve always done and do something about it! You can’t even imagine how frustrating is to be an air and space geek in Spain!! And nevertheless I always make people around me look at the sky when a visible ISS flyby takes place. Think about it this way: if you won’t, who will? And don’t tell me the chinese, with all due respect, China is not a democracy and its labour system its not a free one…in the near future they either will have to change or fall.

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