The sun always shines in space, so it was no surprise when Sir Paul McCartney called the crew of Atlantis, the last space shuttle, on Friday and sang, “Good Day Sunshine” to them. Later in the day, President Barack Obama called and told the astronauts that their mission “ushers in an exciting new era to push the frontiers of space exploration and human spaceflight.” Pity it was all happy-face lies.
The last shuttle mission actually ushers in an era when the only hope of getting into space for the few remaining American astronauts will be to hitch a ride on a Russian or Chinese rocket. Most of them will have to find jobs elsewhere. And however brightly the sun shines, the day when the United States finally gives up on manned space flight is not a good day.
U.S. rockets still will put satellites into orbit. The older ones were built by the military or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the newer models will be built by private companies that claim they can boost cargo into space at a much cheaper price. But they won’t be able to put a human being in orbit for a very long time, if ever.
This is not to say that the U.S. should have kept the shuttles going indefinitely. They weren’t safe: Two of the four original shuttles were lost, with 14 crew, in a total of only 135 trips. They were not cost-effective either: They each flew on average only once a year during their 30 years of service.
NASA had perfectly sensible plans to replace the shuttles. In 2004, former president George W. Bush approved an ambitious NASA plan to build a new generation of powerful rockets to deliver people and materials into near-Earth orbit more cheaply, but also to put a permanent manned base on the moon by 2020.
NASA calculated that the “Constellation” program would cost about $8 billion a year until 2020 (the U.S. defense budget burns through that much every five days). Maybe the cost would have risen considerably over time, but that’s not such a big deal: Creating big, new technology always takes longer and costs more.
When President Obama canceled the Constellation project in 2010, he talked about doing things in a “smarter way,” and how private enterprise would develop “space taxis” that would put people into orbit more cheaply. In reality, however, he was ending federal government support for manned space flight — though he did promise to invest a little more than a billion dollars a year in those “clever” private companies.
Lacking federal financial support, the clever companies will concentrate on doing things that make a profit. Putting people into space does not make a profit. Not in the short run, anyway, and the bean-counters are notoriously uninterested in the very long run.
When Christopher Columbus had this idea for a new way to reach Asia, he did not talk to some Spanish fishermen about scaling up their voyages (making a profit at each stage) until eventually they would cross the entire ocean. He went to the Spanish court and got state support for his venture. Almost all of the early European voyages of discovery had state backing, because the profits were not going to flow for quite a while.
The analogy is less than perfect, but it is relevant. Building a permanent space station, establishing a human base on the moon, designing and funding the first voyage to Mars — such things are not going to be undertaken by clever companies operating out of old hangars at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. They haven’t the resources, and it makes no commercial sense.
That enterprise has not been abandoned. The Russians, who were the first into space, have not given up on manned space flight despite their relative lack of resources. The Chinese are catching up fast, and the Indians plan to put their first person into orbit in 2015. Even the Japanese are not to be counted out. It’s just the Americans who are quitting.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.