For those with an eye on science and technology news, this week’s stories have featured mission highlights for the space shuttle Discovery, which ferried instrumentation and spare parts for the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission proceeded with only minor hiccups, and even the Twitter updates were livelier than usual (‘We had the first voice contact with Discovery happy to hear their voice! Docking in two hours!”). For those born in the last few decades, the sight of American astronauts blasting off into space has always been just another periodic fact of life. Soon, however, there will be an abrupt cessation of tradition.
The Discovery mission to the ISS is one of a dying breed, as concerns about cost and safety have caused the U.S. space shuttle program to be slated for retirement in September. Only three missions remain to complete the construction and outfitting of the ISS.

There will be lamentation and remembrance for Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis. As some of the most complex devices ever created by humans, these shuttles are marvelous and incredible machines. But with the end of their service, what does the future of American space exploration look like?

Obama’s recent budget proposal cancels the Constellation program, put forward during the Bush administration. Underfunded from its conception, Constellation aimed to return humans to the moon by 2020, but that goal is now impossible.

The greatest blow to American efforts at space exploration comes from not a loss of money, but of people. The retirement of the space shuttle and the cancellation of Constellation will be devastating to the 17,000 people employed by NASA. As the government-funded program loses many of these valuable individuals, it also loses the expertise and experience that grew out of five decades of manned and unmanned missions. If money and romanticism ever again conspire to restart governmental programs like Constellation in future years, they will be under the stewardship of young, inexperienced engineers and scientists without the guidance of the old masters.

With the end of the shuttle program, NASA will be reliant on two external entities for any manned endeavors. The first of these includes foreign governments like Russia, Japan and the European Union, all of which possess cargo crafts capable of reaching low Earth orbit and the ISS. The end of the space shuttle era will require international cooperation if we are to achieve any of our goals in space. Along with this, however, must come certain humility and an acceptance that the cosmos will not be uniformly adorned in red, white and blue. China and other countries with nascent spaceflight programs now have the opportunity to make their mark on mankind’s exploration of the stars.

The other entity NASA will be collaborating with is the commercial sector. There are already several companies like SpaceX that are aggressively pursuing the market of orbital transportation. The recent NASA budget devotes $5.8 billion to help such private companies effectively develop taxi services for astronauts and high-class tourists.

However, the larger, more ambitious question still remains unanswered. What about going beyond low Earth orbit? This band of space, between 200 kilometers to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, is where virtually all human spaceflight (with the exception of the Apollo program) have taken place. To break the tether of Earth’s gravitational pull, a craft must travel past Geostationary Orbit, 35,000 kilometers above the Earth.

The Constellation program had made significant strides toward taking men past this point, including the design and prototype launch of the Ares I booster. Will anyone aggressively continue such work? With this past year’s discovery of water on the moon, dreams have re-awakened about establishing human colonies on the lunar surface for research and commercial pursuits dreams, unfortunately, that require impressive amounts of capital.

Perhaps this is why placing the future of space exploration in the hands of commercial interests is a good thing. Such a shift creates job opportunities for NASA employees dismissed in the present reductions.

These men and women are passionate about mankind’s relationship with the cosmos, and I doubt that many of them would turn down a company that is, among other things, working to develop that relationship.

With such talent, commercial firms may work to develop new engines, robots and orbiting fuel depots to make space exploration and commercialization more efficient.

To return to the moon and to venture farther, some idealism must be sacrificed in exchange for the realization of a dream. We should be prepared for the sight of an industrial vessel touching down on the moon to pave the way for the construction of permanent infrastructure. The endeavor will no doubt be widely publicized and funded by a conglomerate of companies and special interest groups.

The sight won’t be nearly as romantic as planting an American flag in the rocky regolith and declaring over a crackling radio, ‘We’re back.” That lies the way of science fiction.

Kozak is a member of
the class of 2011.

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