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Farewell to space

Written By: - Date published: 10:21 am, July 24th, 2011 - 34 comments
Categories: International, science - Tags: ,

I’m a geek and I’m proud.  I grew up with science fiction, and with the heartfelt wish and hope that humanity would one day make it off this poor abused planet and spread to the stars.  But I think it has now become obvious that we’re not going to make it.  In practical terms our exploration of space has peaked, and is now in decline.

Obviously these thoughts have been triggered by the end of the space shuttle program:

Space shuttle Atlantis touches down, ending an era of adventure in space

Nasa employees weep at Kennedy Space Centre as half a century of American dominance in space comes to a close

She roared into the heavens a fortnight ago atop a column of fire, enthralling a million spectators as she set off on her final voyage. But the space shuttle Atlantis slipped quietly back to port on Thursday at the end of her five-million-mile journey, gently lowering the curtain on three extraordinary decades of adventure in human space flight. …

Despite the rallying words, many feel that the moment of wheels-stop for Atlantis also marked the end of a half-century of US dominance in space.

For the first time in the agency’s 53-year history it has no vehicle, existing or in the works, capable of launching astronauts into orbit. The International Space Station, built almost exclusively by American astronauts flying shuttles, must now be serviced by Russia’s Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft.

From another report:

The longer-term future for American space exploration is hazy, a huge concern for many at NASA. President Barack Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the mid-2030s. But the space agency has yet to even settle on a rocket design. …

As of Thursday, the Kennedy Space Center work force numbered 11,500, down from a shuttle-era peak of 18,000 in 1992. Between 1,500 and 1,800 layoffs are coming Friday, and 2,000 more are expected in the coming weeks and months.

It certainly feels like the tide is going out. A point also well made in this “graph” by one of my favourite cartoonists.  We’re still talking tough of course, but it’s hard to see how a real space programme can ever be maintained in the face of the three coming tsunamis: economic chaos, peak oil, and climate change.

But there is one silver lining in this depressing cloud.  The end of the dream of space certainly focuses attention on taking care of the one and only planet we’re ever going to get.

34 comments on “Farewell to space”

  1. vto 1

    I always wanted to go watch one take off. May have to find some other Cape Canaveral with rockets and hitch a ride …

    • r0b 1.1

      vto, marty mars, yeah, me too.  

      I was in Florida once when there was a launch, but it was 4:30am  and I was already exhausted, with a flight home to catch that day.  So I missed it and slept instead.  I think I’ll always regret it.

  2. Yeah i always wanted to see one take off too. I can’t see the commodification of getting out there being the answer – I just wish we could really have a pan-human view on it and realise some of the sci fi visions that would help us all.

  3. tc 3

    Until they figure out some game changing propulsion technology instead of burning fuel of various types as the cartoon says ‘that’s all folks’.

  4. joe90 4

    Here is the story and some photos from a Boeing produced book on the legacy of the Space Shuttle program. And a link to a pdf version of the booklet.

    Also, a link to sample pages (pdf) from NASA’s book, “Wings in Orbit”.

  5. Jenny 5


    Climate: the final frontier. This is the mission of the Labour Led coalition.. Its six-year task: to save our world, to protect life and civilisation, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

    (My apologies to Gene Roddenberry)

    • higherstandard 5.1

      “(My apologies to Gene Roddenberry)”

      And common sense

      • Colonial Viper 5.1.1

        protecting life and civilisation goes against common sense?

      • Kaplan 5.1.2

        I have had a guts full of people like HS that have lost the survival instinct so completely that they actively protest against the actions necessary for our species to survive.
        If it was just themselves they were taking out I’d happily nominate them for a collective Darwin award but they are taking the rest of us out with them. CCD Arseholes!

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    Goodbye, Space Shuttle: Now the Space Race Can Really Begin

    That’s not quite an accurate characterization. In fact, the X-37B ditches the shuttle’s most extravagant features in favor of more modest capabilities that work far better. For starters, the X-37B is small — just 28 feet from tip to tail. It can’t carry giant satellites and was never meant to — that’s a task for Delta IVs and other big rockets.

    Instead, the X-37B duplicates the shuttle’s ability to carry small experiments into orbit and return them safely — but at much lower cost: just $100 million per flight, barely 7 percent of the shuttle’s per-flight cost. The robot space plane can also function as an orbital spy and even a space weapon, although the latter role is unlikely.

    Although I agree, with Climate Change, Peak Oil and the collapsing ponzi scheme that is our economic system, it’s likely that space will hit the back burners for awhile.

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      and even a space weapon, although the latter role is unlikely.

      But already thought through and provisioned for in the design, by the sounds of it.

  7. weka 7

    The end of the dream of space certainly focuses attention on taking care of the one and only planet we’re ever going to get.
     

    And about time. I don’t find it depressing, I’m relieved. And in scifi terms I imagine the rest of the universe just sighed in relief too.

  8. randal 8

    well I guess it kept a lot of people employed.

    • felix 8.1

      Indeed. And all that brainpower can now be put to use on some of our more pressing concerns.

      • r0b 8.1.1

        It isn’t brainpower that we lack.  We lack wisdom.

        • Jenny 8.1.1.1

          .
          We have brainpower and wisdom in abundance.

          What is lacking is the political will.

          This from Labour MP Charles Chauvel. Friday, 22/07/11

          Dr Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is correct, when she observes that “the plans to increase lignite use are extremely concerning as they would produce huge quantities of carbon dioxide which contributes to climate change”.

          We won’t be arbitrarily prohibiting such mining operations simply because we don’t happen to like them. We will apply an appropriately calibrated Emissions Trading Scheme to them.

          Charles Chauvel

          Hardly a Churchillian. “We will fight them on the beaches” statement.

          Sounds more like Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time.”

          • Afewknowthetruth 8.1.1.1.1

            In view of the fact that emissions trading is just an elaborate scam designed to conceal emissions while doing nothing to reduce them, it sounds more like something from 1984: Ignoracne is strength.

        • vto 8.1.1.2

          Oh I think brainpower and wisdom have both been applied pretty well. It has just been applied unwisely i.e. to killing and dominating fellow manwoman.

  9. Tiger Mountain 9

    There will be a hiatus, but it is surely not the end because science is to some extent a process independent of governments and corporates. Entrepreneur driven space tourism will be a flopper and diversion for sure though.

    The Human Genome revelations have not delivered widely yet in medical advance, but they will for my kids. Who knows what CERN will eventually turn up about how quantum particles behave that might change the mechanics of space travel.

    A race that sent people to our moon in modules with less computing power than my ipod is not likely to give up on exploring the cold uncaring universe. We will need to get off this rock eventually.

    It is bittesweet for us over 50s that we won’t get to see space MkII. Well unless cloning arrives sooner than expected!

  10. Rich 10

    None of the planets in the solar system are in any way habitable. We are never going to get anywhere near reaching an exoplanet.

    Putting things in space is very useful. We use stuff with a space segment every day. It’s also interesting and useful to learn more about our our environment, which we can do cost-effectively with automated craft. The Shuttle was a bit of a boondoggle, really. 90% of the work it did could be done by an unmanned platform, and it would have been perfectly feasible to fit it with automated controls (maybe after one of the disasters) and use it unmanned. They didn’t because it would have spoilt the narrative.

  11. vto 11

    I recall some number of years ago seeing two new developments in mankind’s technological prowess being advanced and I figured that if the two could be combined then, voila, another dawning of an age…

    They were firstly dolly the sheep.

    And secondly powering a rocket using a laser.

    Of course a laser is simply light, and out in out of space there is only light. So there is no need to take hard fuel from planet earth is space travel is undertaken, it could just be plucked from suns and stars as you went past them. And there are apparently an infinite number of them.

    And of course dolly the sheep and the cloning has the potential to lead to being able to grow replacement cells for a human body.

    So put the two together and you get the ability to travel forever using the light in space, as well as live forever by growing some replacement cells for your own body. So there we go – out into out of space forever…. see ya’s out there somewhere … byeeeee

    • Draco T Bastard 11.1

      As I understand it, dolly didn’t live as long as a normal birth sheep. Still, more development could possibly solve whatever problems that shows.

      As for the laser rocket – which type? Although, from your description, it sounds more like the Solar Sail.

  12. red blooded 12

    It’s got to be said, ‘never’ is a very long time. I don’t think the people of one era can ever really make absolute predictions for the people of the eras to come. Maybe space exploration is in hiatus, but I doubt if it is dead. 

    • Jenny 12.1

      .
      Yes, red blooded, ‘never’ is a very long time. This is roughly about the amount of time extinction lasts.

      Maybe space exploration is in hiatus, but I doubt if it is dead.

      red blooded

      It will be dead if civilisation, or even humanity itself, don’t survive Climate Change.

      • Colonial Viper 12.1.1

        Climate change is not as big a problem as peak energy. Not saying that the former is not a huge problem, but peak energy / energy depletion will cause very serious issues in the next few years (<10 years).

        • Afewknowthetruth 12.1.1.1

          ‘Climate change is not as big a problem as peak energy.’

          I can hardly believe what I have just read. Climate change has the potential to render the Earth largely uninhabitable for humans and most other species, and you think that is less serious than energy decline just because it is likely to occur a few decades later????

          Actually neither peak oil nor climate change are problems. Along with population overshoor and the Sixth Great Extinction Event, they are predicaments from which there is no readily identifiable means of escape at this late stage in the game.

          (If they had been tackled when they were first identified several decades ago they would not have morphed into predicaments.)

          • Colonial Viper 12.1.1.1.1

            So what does it matter to you what I said about energy depletion vs climate change, as you’re already certain that nothing can be done about either?

            you think that is less serious than energy decline just because it is likely to occur a few decades later????

            Yep. If we don’t sort that out smartly, climate change will merely take out our remnants.

  13. Carol 13

    I enjoy a lot of space fiction TV and movies, but I’ve never been interested in space exploration. For me the best science fiction is an imaginative exploration of contemporary earthly issues. As for real space exploration, I always wonder why people can’t put as much resources, ingenuity and effort into solving the problems we have on earth – feeding the world etc.

    But I didn’t think the end of US space shuttles was an end to space exploration. It’s just a sign of the demise of the US as the major superpower & hegemon. Other countries are taking over from the US on this, especially China and Russia:

    http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/20/158495.html

    Meanwhile, more nations are joining the Space Club with a growing awareness that space is vital to national security. According to a study by Euroconsult, more than 50 countries are currently investing in domestic space programs. In 2010, world government spending on space set a historic record with civil and defense government spending combined at $71.5 billion, and projected to remain at around $70 billion until 2015.
    […]

    China, as a rising great power, views the exploration of space not only as the cornerstone of its national science and technology innovation efforts, but also as an important catalyst to achieve its national development goals and its vital political, economic, and security interests.

    With space investments exceeding $2 billion in 2010, China became the second largest spender on space in Asia after Japan with $3.8 billion. China last year conducted as many launches as the United States’ 15, second only to Russia with 31.

    However, they may also hit a wall in the near future as the earth uses up its resources.

    • Draco T Bastard 13.1

      feeding the world

      That’s not the problem – overpopulation is. Solve that problem and the resources are more than available for space exploration.

      BTW, space exploration uses a different set of resources than feeding people and so it made absolutely no difference to people being fed. This fact is hidden by the delusion people hold that money is a resource.

      • Carol 13.1.1

        DTB, money wasn’t the key requirement I was thinking of. In fact, I think too much focus on money & profits is part of the reason more effort is put into space by the power elites than into solving other world problems like food shortages in some areas of the world.

        The main resource I was thinking of was that of human ingenuity, problem solving, time spent focusing on the problems – that along with thise neeeded to enable such ingenuity, and the support of the pwoer elites, the media etc that promotes it as an imortant goal for world societies.

        Overpopulation is another of those problems that could be solveable with the will and co-operative effort. And I have heard/read people say, in tha last decade, that there is enough food to feed the world, but it is not managed and organised in ways that would ensure everyone is adequately fed.

        Space exploration is just a fantastical distraction from far more pressing issues as far as I’m concerned.

      • I concur, Draco.

        Vastly more amounts of tax-dollars were squandered on the military than on peaceful exploration of outer space. If we’d devoted even half of thre military budget to space exploration, then we’d have a colony on the Moon by now, and possibly even a base on Mars.

        I share Anthony’s sadness at the passing/reduction of the space programme. It was far more than just gathering bits of data or taking nice pics of Jupiter’s moons – it was about lifting our eyes to the heavens and reminding human beings about the vastness and beauty of the Universe around us.

        Damn it, Gene Roddenberry, you gave us a tantalising glimpse of what-might-have-been – and politicians and corrupt Wall St businessmen have snatched it away from us.

        Perhaps our Chinese cuzzies may choose to boldly go where none have gone before?

        http://astronomycentral.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Europa.jpg – Europa. One of Jupiter’s moons. It is covered in a thick layer of water ice.

        What lies beneath?

        Is there thermic volcanic activity, creating warm-zones deep beneath the Europan ocean?

        And where there is water and warmth – is there…life?

  14. Afewknowthetruth 14

    Squandering yet more energy and resources and pushing up emissions might cause this

    http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html

    to become the norm.

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