Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis

Photo above courtesy NASA/Kenny Allen. Photo below: NASA.

I was only in my early teens when the space shuttles first began to fly in 1980, but I remember that it was a matter of considerable accomplishment. NASA had lost some vigor and popularity in the lean years following the abandonment of our moon program. But the shuttle was an indication that the United States (and mankind) still had the appetite for space adventure, and it was also a step ahead: It was the first reusable spaceship.

The shuttle fleet never lived up to its early promise, alas. We never approached the number of flights each year that were bandied about. Critics have complained that there was a leaner and lighter approach that should have been used to take people into space. And I don't recall vacationing on the moon, do you? Also, of course, there's no real space station on the other end.

Oh, there's a space station, all right. And in its final voyage this week, the shuttle Atlantis docked at the International Space Station. But it's not a space station that any of us who have been hoping for space settlement for decades would admit to. We're not there, and the thing's only inhabited whenever a country has the bucks to spare to shoot some astronauts (or cosmonauts) at the orbiting tin can.

This week we're seeing the final flight of the Atlantis. (Geeky moment aside: Today I listened to the audiobook recording of the SyFy-era Battlestar Galactica, which begins with the old Galactica battlestar about to be decommissioned -- which was delayed by a little thing like the destruction of the colonies. You do not know me at all if you don't think I'm at least entertaining the idea in the back of my head of being forced to live in an about-to-be-decommissioned space shuttle after Earth is destroyed by Cylons.) (Yes, I know that doesn't make this blog post any more respectable, but what can you do?)

This is the final flight of the Atlantis, and the other two shuttles have their final flights coming up. This is an end of an era. Private enterprise can, and should, take over, no doubt. But it is worth noting that the American government won't be in the lead.

The future in space looks increasingly like it'll be written in Chinese. Nothing against the Chinese (well, except for their awful authoritarian government), but I'd rather fly on Virgin Galactic. At least I know it'll be ready and working when the Cylons attack.
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