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Monday, 14 March 2011

How the end of the space shuttle might be the end for the space age, as we know it

“[...]to boldly go where no man has gone before”
Leader Star Trek

I must admit it: I am a trekkie. As a child in the seventies, I was following with red ears the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura in the starship Enterprise, on their way to discover new planets and friendly civilizations. I watched every episode of the visionary series Star Trek, created by the brillant mind Gene Roddenberry. And also Star Wars… And Battlestar Galactica… And at night I dreamed being in a spacecraft myself, prepared “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

"May you live long and prosper"
- picture courtesy of Paramount Television
In the late sixties and early seventies we already went to the moon, so I figured that by the time I would be 40 (in 2006) the human race would be able to travel to other planets and maybe even the stars. I was affirmed in these thoughts by my favorite SF novels and the Dutch popular-scientific magazine Kijk (“Look”).

When the space shuttle Columbia was launched in 1982 for “the real thing”, I was having my finest hour. “This is the first step towards realizing my dream of being a space scout” I yelled. It went … a little different.

In stead of paving the way for further space exploration, the Space Shuttle has become a black hole that sucked up all of Nasa’s vast budgets. In 140 flights with the shuttle a budget of $150 bln has been evaporated and 14 human lives have been lost. And yeah, there were some successes, like the Hubble space telescope and some other large objects that could not be brought into space with a “normal” rocket. But if these successes were worth the enormous price: your guess is as good as mine.

In every case it became clear during the lifetime of the shuttle that it was many times more expensive to launch the reusable Space Shuttle than to launch the very lo-tech and disposable, but highly reliable Russian Sojuz rocket. But before we discovered this, the NASA’s budget was already spent. This is one of the reasons that a trip to the moon is now as much considered science fiction as it was at the beginning of the sixties.

But in my opinion there is a much bigger reason: the frontier mentality of especially the Americans and Europeans has been replaced for a mentality of “my home is my castle”. Due to the computer, iPhone and internet there is less and less need for people to go outside their houses to discover things themselves. Instead you can virtually travel to every place that other people discovered before you. “Why should we visit Mars, which is so far, if we even don’t visit our local household appliances store which is so close”.

This combined with the economic crisis will probably mean that the end of the space shuttles’ lifespan at the end of this year is the temporary end of the space age. Temporary as I hope that the contemporaries of my grandchildren will run the gauntlet again.

And for me? I am in my forties now and I have three small children and a lovely wife. I guess I don’t want to be a space scout anymore. But the little boy inside me cries for the lost possibility to visit space. May you live long and prosper!

1 comment:

  1. This post stirs fond memories of Star-Trek, the shuttle and My Father. His Childhood was a different era than mine. The stars were a mystery waiting to be solved when he was a kid yet space had been all but conquered by my arrival as a child. Yet as different as his childhood was from the childhood he provided me, we both shared the same childlike yearning of being a space explorer. He was the farthest thing from a trekkie or a Techie but those were special moments during my youth as I sat watching reruns of the Original Trek series, visiting kennedy space center, and watching many shuttle launches all with my Father.