Friday, July 8, 2011

The end of an era: last space shuttle mission

Russia Today on YouTube: Atlantis has blasted off on NASA's last space shuttle launch. The historic liftoff occurred Friday morning, 30 years and three months after the very first shuttle flight. Four astronauts are riding Atlantis to orbit. The shuttle is bound for the International Space Station, making one final supply run. Hundreds of thousands of spectators jammed Cape Canaveral and surrounding towns for the farewell. Kennedy Space Center itself was packed with shuttle workers, astronauts and 45,000 invited guests, the maximum allowed. The flight will last 12 days. Weather permitting, Atlantis will return to Kennedy, where it will end up on permanent display.
Reuters: Space shuttle leaves Earth on final flight
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida | Fri Jul 8, 2011 1:24pm EDT
Space shuttle Atlantis rocketed off its seaside launch pad on Friday, rising atop a tower of smoke and flames as it left Earth on the shuttle program's final flight.

About 1 million sightseers witnessed the smooth liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. They lined causeways and beaches around the central Florida site, angling for a last glimpse of the pioneering ship that has defined the U.S. space program for the past 30 years.

"Good luck to you and your crew on this final flight of this true American icon," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach radioed to the crew minutes before takeoff.
"The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through," said Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson.
I would consider myself remiss if I didn't at least mention this story, which I plan on highlighting as the science story of the week over on Daily Kos tomorrow night. After all, this blog is about both collapse, including decline, a leading indicator of collapse, and how to prevent it, and I examine these topics from a science fiction angle. I think few themes more exemplify civilizational decline in science fiction more than withdrawing from space, and those that do generally include loss of ability to travel off the planet.

So, how does this story qualify as a sustainability one? I can point to the obvious scientific and cultural aspects, as well as reiterating the comment from the article above that space travel is something great nations do, and I will point out the economic aspects of it. But let me first remind you of the following article from a month ago.

Indiana University: AHR examines ‘Earthrise era,’ symbols of Argentine cultural identity
June 6, 2011
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Hear the word "Earth," and the images likely to flash through the mind are descendants of two views afforded by the Apollo missions. One, a photograph called "Earthrise," shows Earth half-cloaked in shadow above a lifeless moonscape. A second, "Blue Marble," reveals our planet suspended alone in the void; it is reputed to be the most widely disseminated photograph in history.

Such views of Earth, it has been argued, prompted a revolution in the global imagination and a new appreciation for the beauty and fragility of the planet. But Benjamin Lazier, associate professor of history at Reed College, writing in the June 2011 issue of the American Historical Review, questions whether the Apollo images did indeed prompt such a revolution. And if so, he asks, to what ends?

Lazier supplements accounts of the Cold War origins and environmentalist afterlives of the "Earthrise era" with a history of philosophical responses to the earliest images of Earth from space. He focuses on thinkers -- including Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger and Hans Blumenberg -- who were troubled by the displacement of local, earthbound horizons with horizons that are planetary in scope and scale.

"Their example … prompts us to ask whether the visions and vocabularies of the Earthrise era have inadvertently accelerated our planetary emergency as much as they have inspired us to slow it down," he writes in "Earthrise; or, The Globalization of the World Picture."
Yes, the environmental era and the era of space travel not only coincide, they directly feed into one another. After all, I consider the use of "the planet" to describe Earth as a shibboleth of the environmental movement, and that use comes directly from space travel, as described above.

I did mention the economic angle. Time to return to it. From the Reuters article quoted above.
NASA is ending the shuttle program due to high operating costs.

"We have not found a way in this nation of being able to start a new program, and start it robustly, while continuing with an existing program," said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
Along with everything else, the U.S. government is having difficulty funding this program. As I've told you before, the interplay between sustainability and austerity will shape the major issues for the rest of this decade, if not beyond.

I'm not the only one feeling that this mission is an ill omen, as the following article from Reuters demonstrates.

Shuttles' end stirs doubts about U.S. space program
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida | Fri Jul 8, 2011 12:48pm EDT
As the clock ticks down to this week's final space shuttle launch, there is a mounting sense of uncertainty about future U.S. dominance in space.

If all goes according to plan, Friday morning's launch of shuttle Atlantis on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station will mark the end of an era in the U.S. manned spaceflight program.

But veteran former astronauts say the space program is in "disarray" and fear the end of the shuttles could mean a permanent decline in U.S. space leadership as well.

Even one senior NASA official voiced pointed criticism recently about what he described as "poor policy" and the lack of any coherent leadership from Washington.
"We're basically decimating the NASA human spaceflight program," said seven-time shuttle flier Jerry Ross. "The only thing we're going to have left in town is the station and it's a totally different animal from the shuttle."

That sentiment is echoed by several Apollo-era luminaries, including the normally reticent Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 commander who 42 years ago was the first person to set foot on the moon.

Armstrong and colleagues Gene Cernan, commander of the final U.S. moon mission in 1972 and Jim Lovell, commander of the nearly fatal Apollo 13 flight, publicly decried the state of the U.S. space program in a widely distributed column.

"NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing," the astronauts wrote recently.

"After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent."
If I wanted to point to any statement that qualifies this article as a swim article, it's that last one. The U.S. appears to be swimming against its historical leadership position in space.

On the other hand, the people in charge disagree with all of the above, and can back it up with evidence. Again, from the Reuters article quoted above.
The White House and NASA's leaders have insisted, however, that America still has a bright future in space.
The new focus of the U.S. human space flight program will be the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that orbits 230 miles above Earth.
NASA will rely on Russia to fly its astronauts to the space station, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat, until commercial firms are ready to take over crew ferry flights.

Among the companies interested in the work is Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which already has a NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.

The company, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, successfully tested its Dragon capsule in orbit last December and hopes to make it all the way to the station during a second test flight later this year.

The other freighter, being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp, has yet to debut.

NASA also is backing space taxi development work by Boeing Co, Sierra Nevada Corp and Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The U.S. space agency also plans to use the $4 billion or so it has been spending each year to maintain and operate its three space shuttles to develop new spacecraft that can travel beyond the station's near-Earth orbit, where the shuttles cannot go.
I hope they're right. Otherwise, the U.S. will be playing out one of the classic tragic technological decline scenarios from science fiction in real life.

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