In December of 1972, the last man to visit the moon returned to Earth. A total of 12 men had been there in less than four years. They walked around, collected rocks, and even played golf. But after only a short time, we had apparently accomplished everything we could on the moon. So we pulled the plug on the Apollo moon-shot program.
It’s time to do the same thing with the International Space Station and the space shuttle program.
On Aug. 26, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued a scathing report about what brought the orbiter down last February. The board blamed the accident on NASA’s culture, and warned, “unless the technical, organizational and cultural recommendations made in this report are implemented, little will have been accomplished to lessen the chance that another accident will follow.”
The problem is that as long as there’s a space shuttle and an I.S.S. the NASA culture will never change. The shuttle program was designed to ferry people back and forth into orbit, not to actually take them out into space. The space station was designed to be a destination for the shuttle (as well as Russian spacecraft) and will spend years traveling in a big loop around the planet. It’s created a lot of jobs for Russian scientists and American contractors. But other than that, it’s not accomplishing much.
Still, NASA’s culture is based on sending people up to the station, keeping an eye on them as they spin around the Earth, and bringing them back. The agency has no plans to go any further, to send people to Mars, to Venus, or to the edge of our Solar System.
But that’s what space exploration should be about: Exploring. Going beyond where we’ve been before, and seeing what’s out there. When our politicians give speeches about the space program, they always extol its virtues as an exploratory program. But then they turn around and reauthorize NASA’s programs, which are nothing more than a shuttle system into orbit and back.
We’ve had humans in a space station for years. Before the multi-billion dollar I.S.S. was launched, Russian cosmonauts had been living on the MIR. They survived zero gravity, performed experiments and somehow kept that tuna can up there for 15 years.
And we’ve been lifting people into orbit for even longer than that. There’s little difference between John Glenn’s historic first flight in 1962 and a modern-day space shuttle mission. Glenn was only aloft for a few hours, while the shuttle can orbit for more than a week. But otherwise, they’re about the same. People go up, circle the planet, and come back.