Neil's News

Space Future

23 April 2010

I was one year old when the last of the Saturns flew[?]. As a child I grew up with books describing the wonderful new Space Shuttle which in the future was going to fly to and from space every week. It was a considerable surprise when in 1981 I'd heard that the Space Shuttle had actually flown its first mission. At issue was the fact that the shuttle was supposed to fly in the future; it never occurred to my six-year-old mind that the future might someday become the present, and then the past.

In hindsight the Space Shuttle has been a disaster. Instead of flying weekly, it has averaged four or five launches per year. Instead of cutting the cost of spaceflight, it has driven prices so high that the US launch market fled to Europe, Russia and China. Instead of being the safest rocket ever designed, it has been the deadliest. Whereas the Shuttle has been launching round-the-clock for ten years to build the International Space Station, a pair of Saturns could have completed the station in a single afternoon. NASA administrator Michael Griffin pointed out recently that had Saturn continued with current funding levels, "we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for 'the next 50 years'."

Having said that, Shuttle is a beautiful vehicle. There are only three more scheduled flights. By the end of the year, the only manned rocket still flying will be the indestructible Russian Soyuz. Celebrate Shuttle's legacy and upcoming retirement with these amazing videos NASA has created of the most recent missions:

Ride the boosters from launch to splashdown, then press to MECO.
Night launch with great views of the auroras from the jets.
Launch at night and race over the horizon into dawn.
Atlantis flying with parrots to the space station.

Six years ago I realized that there were only two companies in the world I was interested in working for; Google and SpaceX. At the time SpaceX was a tiny startup with ambitious goals to launch more frequently, cheaper and more reliably than any other vehicle -- just like the advertising copy that came with the Shuttle. SpaceX have had their share of exploding rockets, but they are on course to achieve the future which was promised to me as a child. That future should be arriving with a roar in about two weeks with the first launch of the Falcon 9. That first launch may fail (I give it 60% odds), but they'll get it right eventually. With luck, the next generation will get the future in space which we were denied.

Challenger moving through the fog to the launchpad on her first mission

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