Rupert Cornwell: Atlantis's mission marks end of a magnificent era

Out of America: The final space shuttle flight on Friday will be a turning point for the manned space programme. And the future is looking very uncertain

Share
Related Topics

Unless a tropical storm intervenes and puts everything on hold, 11.26am this Friday may be one of the saddest moments of the year. That is when Atlantis is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida – and after it returns from its 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), no US space shuttle will ever fly again.

Yes, those who know about such things are mostly saying good riddance. First and foremost, they point out, the shuttle has cost too much. Back when he approved the programme in 1971, Richard Nixon was told that the envisaged weekly flights would cost a mere $7m each.

The crafty old devil probably never believed that, but the shuttle would bring thousands of aerospace jobs to key electoral states like California, Texas and Florida; so what the heck? Even so, Nixon could not have imagined that each flight would now cost over $1bn, and that the programme would have devoured over $200bn.

Undoubtedly, expendable launchers for manned flight would have been cheaper – maybe only $150m each. Had Nasa stuck with some form of the Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon, some say there might have been flights to Mars by now.

Probably, one-time vehicles would have been safer too. Space travel is an inherently risky business – but so risky that two of just 135 shuttle missions ended in disaster? And, in both the Challenger accident in 1986 and the disintegration of Columbia over Texas on February 1 2003, Nasa had ample warning of the hazards, but went ahead nonetheless.

And perhaps the most damning argument of all, the shuttle was a compromise: it sought to meet commercial, scientific and military needs all at once. Each could have been achieved more effectively and cheaply had they been tackled separately. In short, the shuttle was a magnificent blind alley.

Technologically, for this non-techie at least, it has never ceased to inspire wonder: a piloted craft blasts into the heavens, orbits the earth, flies back through the atmosphere and lands on a runway like an ordinary plane – and is ready to go again a few weeks later.

Even shuttle critics admit it's the most advanced space vehicle ever built. Nor has it yet reached the end of its intended lifespan. The five shuttles were designed for 100 missions each; instead, they've clocked up only 135 between them – a flight roughly every 10 weeks between Columbia's first mission in April 1981 and Atlantis's swansong this week.

But the shuttle was also a victim of its own success in making space missions so routine. You only noticed a shuttle flight when something went wrong. The Challenger and Columbia catastrophes were "remember-where-you-were-when-you-heard" moments, like the assassination of JFK or the death of Diana. The shuttle's grip on our imagination was only tightened, it must be said, by President Reagan's address to the nation after Challenger exploded on 28 January 1986, words that still bring tears to the eyes. But now the shuttle era is over, to be replaced by ... what exactly?

All that can be said with certainty is that thousands of jobs will be lost in California, Texas and Florida. At least six astronauts have reportedly quit as well; a post-shuttle regime of six-week training stints in Japan, Canada and Russia, followed by six months aboard the ISS doesn't quite have the glamour of Nasa's glory days.

After the Columbia tragedy, no one disputed that big changes were required. Less than a year later, in January 2004, President George W Bush presented his "Vision for Space Exploration", in which the shuttle would be pensioned off and the focus would be on the solar system, under a programme called Constellation.

But the money was never forthcoming, and the agency, not for the first time, was left promising more than it could deliver. First, the Ares rocket, intended to be the workhorse of the project, ran into problems. Then the recession arrived and Constellation was scrapped in its entirety.

What seems to be left, although President Obama has never been very clear on the subject, is something called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a super-shuttle designed to be 10 times safer than the old ones, that would be blasted into space by a new Space Launch System, an upgraded version of the current launch rocket, that will be ready for trials by 2016. But isn't all this merely an update of the shuttle concept, which the experts have told us is the wrong way to go?

America, of course, is not pulling out of space. US missile defence, a descendant of Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defence Initiative, continues – and who knows what projects are afoot at secret air bases in the Nevada desert? But on the non-military side, there will be a gap of least five years. In that time, Russian Soyuz rockets will ferry US astronauts to the ISS; maybe the US private sector will step in, with rockets and space vehicles to carry equipment and people into space.

There's nothing wrong with that; indeed, in these tough economic times, it makes perfect sense. But forgive me if I shed a tear for the amazing shuttle, never again to be seen in the sky.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz