“One giant stumble for mankind” as Space Shuttle begins final mission

“One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” The immortal words uttered by Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the moon.

The re-booted, 21st century version of that  would surely be “One small saving for NASA; one giant stumble for mankind.”

After 135 missions the Space Shuttle is being decommissioned

Tomorrow’s final launch of the Space Shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Florida is a sad loss for civilisation and leaves serious questions about our ambitions in space in years to come.

When Atlantis blasts off at 16:26 (GMT) tomorrow on its twelve day mission to the International Space Station it will be the last flight of NASA’s re-usable space vehicles. In service for the last 30 years, they were once lauded as the future of space travel – a cheap way of getting into space on a regular basis.

But after concerns were raised about the safety of the fleet and more recently the cost of the missions, the White House has decided to end the United States’ half century association with space exploration.

First let’s look at the cost. Atlantis’ final flight will be the 135th of the fleet costing a total of $120billion over 30 years. That’s $900million per launch on average. Now, compare that to the cost of war in Iraq. Since 2003 that conflict has cost the U.S. an estimated $806billion.

I would argue that you get much more bang for your buck in using the Space Shuttle to further our understanding of the universe than you do by starting an illegal invasion. But maybe that’s just me.

On safety concerns, yes there have been two disasters involving the shuttle programme, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. While tragic, we must not forget that space exploration is by it’s very nature pushing the limits of what we can achieve. The race to get to the moon did not stop when Apollo 1’s main hatch door wouldn’t open, and our desire to learn more and see further into space did not falter when Apollo 13 became such a glorious failure.

The end of the shuttle programme must be seen as a giant stumble for mankind. We are always looking to go further, faster, to learn more and discover new horizons. This is human nature.

But in the last decade we have lost Concorde, we will lose the shuttle fleet, and let’s not forget that we are only four years away from when every one of a certain age expects to have flying cars.

Technology has stopped, when it should be advancing.

$120billion over 30 years is a bargain. Think of all we have discovered by using the Hubble Space Telescope or Chandra X-ray observatory and what we will continue to learn from the experiments taking place on the ISS.

The challenge is to convince Governments and the public that spending on science is not a waste of money, but rather an investment.

Tomorrow’s final journey of the shuttle is a sad day indeed.

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