Loss of Signal….? July 11, 2011

July 11, 2011
Less than 8 hours from now, when Shuttle Atlantis touches down on the landing facility at Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. human spaceflight program, very much unwanted, will enter an indeterminate period of suspended animation. Whether you think the Shuttle Program was worth or wasn’t or you don’t care, our retreat from human spaceflight presents significant challenges for the long-term well-being of publicly-funded science and technology programs.

Put aside the 7,000 layoffs at NASA, the negative multiplier effect as employees at shuttle program contractors lose their jobs, and the disappearance of a well-known symbol of national engineering prowess and technological achievement. No wait. Strike that last clause. The shuttle, for its successes, its painful flaws and its costs was a potent attractor of support for publicly-funded science — and not just space science.

Like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo before it, the shuttle program was a rallying point (yes, much diminished in recent years) for citizens who appreciate bold and audacious national investments in next-generation science and technology. Human spaceflight is a portal that helps lead students and adults to a greater appreciation of the promise of science and engineering. It is a concept and a real adventure that educators can readily wield in their increasingly underfunded efforts to keep the coming generations of Americans science literate. (Human spaceflight is emotionally moving. Artists and writers compose poetry, music, and visual art inspired by space exploration. Think Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, David Bowie, Rush, Edwin Morgan, Big Head Todd and the Monsters.)

The future does not look bright for big science and engineering in the U.S. — or at least as bright as it once was. Two concurrent wars, massive deficits, economic dislocation and bloated debt are all to blame. The absence of human spaceflight achievements — the absence of regular, repeated reminders of visibly exciting science — will only add dim the lights further. Consider the recent history of big, nationally-funded science and engineering programs. The superconducting super-collider was cancelled. Europe forged ahead with the Large Hadron Collider. The Fermilab Tevatron: gone out of business. The Webb space telescope is sitting on the edge of oblivion instead of a LaGrange point somewhere beyond the moon’s orbit. Proteomics and stem cell research have come to fore in biological science, following the human genome project, but without the same level of coordinated effort and funding across funding centers and research facilities. Fusion energy research and the promise of a practically unlimited renewable source of energy remains stuck somewhere below commerical breakeven. High-speed rail initiatives: barely moving.

If your position is that the Shuttle was a massive siphon drawing funding from other science endeavours during its existence, consider this limited and slanted list of major science and engineering achievements that occurred alongside the shuttle program and often with its help: the Galileo, Magellan, Cassini and Messenger missions to Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Mercury; Mars Pathfinder, Mars Rovers, Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, Phoenix Mars Lander; Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous; the Deep Impact comet mission; the Gravity Probe B (to test the General Theory of Relativity); the ATMOS and CRISTA Earth Atmosphere studies; the Ulysses solar wind observer; the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory; the Chandra X-ray Observatory; the Spitzer Space Telescope; the Hubble; and the International Space Station.

Looking down the road, the U.S. right now has nothing on the books approaching the frequency and breadth of the above-listed space science missions.

Loss of signal……..?

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