By Kathryn Moore
In its lifetime, NASA’s space shuttle Discovery has carried 246 astronauts nearly 143 million miles in 5,628 Earth orbits on 38 different trips to space. However, Discovery completed its final mission last week, continuing the ongoing decommission of the entire space-shuttle program.
President Obama signed legislation last year that would require NASA, by the end of 2011, to retire its space-shuttle fleet, composed of five reusable spacecrafts — Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Endeavor and Discovery. He also cancelled the Constellation project, NASA’s initiative to return to the moon by the year 2020.
“It is expensive to send a human to space, and it is much more cost-effective for us to send unmanned space probes,” said Dr. Bill Nettles, professor of physics. “However, we have an adventurous spirit where we want to send people to go to space and explore.”
That adventurous American spirit is what first fueled space research and exploration in the 1960s, and also what inspired NASA to design reusable spacecrafts capable of sending humans into low-Earth orbit. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first space-shuttle mission, but some people think it is time to research new technology.
“Unless you’re into classic cars, you don’t drive 30-year-old vehicles without redesigning them,” Nettles said. “The same goes for the shuttle program.”
Eric Olson, junior engineering major, agrees that the time has come to retire the shuttle fleet and its outdated technology.
“It has not been an efficient use of resources on NASA’s end,” Olson said. “I like that the program is ending because it will hopefully be replaced in the future with better cost-efficient programs that will keep returning the same kind of research data NASA has achieved in the past.”
The end of the space-shuttle era leaves the duty of shuttling American astronauts to the International Space Station and performing repairs on American satellites and space telescopes to other countries with space programs, such as China and Russia.
Olson said the fear of having to trust America’s competitors with astronauts’ safety and technology may not go over well with the American people, opening the door for a commercial spaceflight industry.
“The privatization of spaceflight is the best thing that could happen to the space industry, because we now have the technology available to open this industry for competition,” Olson said. “NASA should even guide and collaborate with these private companies that have a lot of passion and drive to create competition in the space industry.”
President Obama may be shutting down the space-shuttle program, but he has already challenged NASA to work toward a new goal: designing a heavy-lift spacecraft allowing for manned spaceflights to asteroids and to Mars.
Nettles said in order for a human to travel to Mars or an asteroid, the United States must establish bases on the moon as a halfway point.
“It’s one thing to take a small satellite or probe to Mars, but it’s another thing to send a human to Mars and back with enough supplies to survive,” Nettles said. “We’ve got to get back to the moon first.”
It is clear that Obama has no intention of completely shutting down NASA and ending all space exploration, but ending the shuttle program is merely a way to redirect American sights past Earth’s own atmosphere.
The recent Discovery mission to the International Space Station was its last, but NASA has plans to launch shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis this summer in two final missions to end the space-shuttle program.