Today was a big day in the history of manned spaceflight in the US. The last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis marks the end of one of the most iconic (and expensive) programs the country has ever undertaken. Whether the shuttle program was worth it will be debated by historians for a long time to come. There is, however, no question about the inspirational power of that beautiful spaceship and its influence on a generation of dreamers around the world. There’s no way I would be sitting in this chair if it weren’t for my first space shuttle poster in 1980. The big question now is: what’s next?
Sure, there are some programs in the offing. Constellation and Orion are still in development, but NASA’s funding is sure to take a hit along with the rest of government. SpaceX is also cranking out more sophisticated versions of its Falcon launch vehicles under the NASA COTS contract, and their Dragon capsule is set to be tested later this year. Still, it’s conceivable that Americans won’t reach orbit on a homemade platform until well into the middle of the decade. In the mean time, Russia will be carrying the freight. What a country!
Congrats to the NASA team at KSC and Johnson, and to the hundreds of contractors who made it possible to fly such a magnificent system. Now lets look to our Congress to ensure that America continues to play a leadership role in manned spaceflight. To give up that mantle puts us permanently out of the inspiration and innovation business, and that’s not good for anyone.