It’s a sad day for nerds everywhere.
In about half an hour, the space shuttle Atlantis will embark on its mission to the International Space Station. It will be the last U.S. shuttle mission, the swansong of a 30-year-old program that has put 355 men and women into space on 135 missions, traveling over 541 million miles to space and back.
Atlantis will return to earth on July 20. If the United States wants to send an astronaut back to space anytime soon, they’ll have to catch a ride with Russian cosmonauts.
I talked with retired astronaut and W.Va. native John McBride about this yesterday. As you can read in my story for today’s Daily Mail, McBride says he has plenty of friends in the cosmonaut corps “but I hate to see us depending on them for the next three to five years.”
“They’re even wondering why we’re doing this,” he told me.
Mr. McBride and I talked for quite a while Thursday, and not all of our conversation made it to newsprint this morning. He told me that, while private industry is already developing technology to put people in space, we shouldn’t have any illusions that it will be cheaper than NASA-operated spaceflights. It’s inherently expensive if it’s done correctly.
“You can’t do spaceflight and space travel on the cheap,” he said. “Or you’re going to hurt somebody.”
He said the worst thing that could happen to American space travel is a private spaceflight that hurts a bunch of civilians.
“Then we really will be stuck.”
We also talked about the consequences of a crippled space program here on earth. McBride, who works as vice president of the Kennedy Space Center’s visitors complex, said the space center has lost more than half of its workforce and stands to lose even more.
He said many of those displaced workers want to continue working in astronautics. There are few job opportunities for that here in the U.S. now, so many of those top-notch scientists are moving to other countries. McBride said it’s happening a lot and “I think we’re going to see more of it.”
He compared it to the German scientists that came to United States after World War II. They had knowledge of rocketry, we had the money and the interest to let them do their thing. American space engineers have a wealth of knowledge but few places at home to use it.
Columnists have had a heyday with the end of the shuttle program. Some are glad to see another expensive government program go down the tubes. Others see the end of the shuttle era as one nail in the United States’ coffin, one more step toward becoming a second-rate superpower.
I don’t know what it means.
Though I am disappointed that the space shuttle program is going the way of the stagecoach, I have no doubt that we’ll go back to space again.
Every little boy, at some point in his life, wants to be a cowboy or an astronaut. Really, they’re one in the same. As long as young Americans are born with the rugged individualism we’re so famous for, this country will continue to push the envelope of what’s possible.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press