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Next Generation: We Want a Spaceship, Not a Freight Truck

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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space shuttle Atlantis on launch pad evening of July 7CAPE CANAVERAL — I took this picture last night, and I don’t like it very much.

Let’s set aside discussions of artistic merit and admit that it’s a pretty dreary view of the last functioning space shuttle perched on its launch pad. Especially when NASA promised a glorious sunset.

I’m a 20-something science journalist now covering my fifth space shuttle mission, and I’ve never known another spaceship. And in so many ways the mundane story behind the creation of this photograph parallels my feelings about the 30-year-long, $209-billion space program.

NASA teased us press types here at Kennedy Space Center with promises of a smooth and timely ride out to Launch Pad 39A to take pictures of Atlantis basking in the glow of the setting sun.

The event ended up as a typical NASA press relations fiasco.

They ran over budget on both time and people. They anticipated about 100 reporters and got roughly double that. Meanwhile, the rain drizzled down and the vicious Cape mosquitoes hunted for fresh blood. We sat in the rain with our buggy friends for an hour in front of several empty idling buses, with no leadership in site.

At the end of that hour, around 8:00 p.m. EDT, someone at NASA decided to skip their normal dog-sniffing security check of our equipment bags (was that the non-existent thing that we were waiting for?). When we finally got on the bus, the thoroughly air-conditioned driver was happily listening to "Honky Tonk Blues" by Hank Williams.

The ride was short, just a couple of miles—one we could have walked in the time we choked on diesel exhaust.

The 30-year tale of the space shuttle, I thought on the bus ride back, shared some eerie similarity.

NASA’s original plan was to usher in an efficient, make-America-proud kind of space program to follow Apollo. A glorious sunset, if you will. But political winds neutered half the $10 billion or so in the early 1970s that NASA felt it needed to develop a truly robust, reusable human launch system (and build a space station).

They hoped for 64 launches a year, but we ultimately got four and change. Each launch cost Americans about $1.5 billion (totaling about $209 billion for the entire program, by popular estimates).

And we didn’t go very far. Most of the time the shuttle sped into orbit just a couple hundred miles above the Earth. Granted, the program sent up and repaired Hubble, sent off a planetary spacecraft, and built the International Space Station. Missions accomplished.

But the promise of glorious spaceflight Americans came to expect—the stuff of risky expeditions to the moon, for example—never materialized. Instead of a spaceship, my generation got the most complex and expensive freight truck ever created.

I’m thrilled NASA plans to hand the torch of routine low-Earth orbit launches over to commercial interests. I believe businesses can do it faster, cheaper and better than a bureaucratic government agency. The reason: money talks.

That said, NASA still has a crucial role to play in the advancement of our species.

I can’t speak in behalf of all starry-eyed 20-somethings, but I want the political leadership of this country to conjure up a daring and focused vision for the future of human spaceflight, and deliver it to NASA. Not a lame-duck promise to go somewhere when budgets are crumbling, but a unified, John F. Kennedy-esque mission Americans can get behind.

Pick one place in space to go other than a slice above this planet—Mars, the moon, an asteroid, whatever—and let’s take advantage of NASA’s incredible brainpower to make it happen.

As the long-overdue space shuttle program sunsets, I believe my generation deserves it.

Image: Atlantis on the launch pad, July 7, 2011. Credit: Dave Mosher

Dave Mosher mugshotAbout the Author: Dave Mosher is a science journalist who’s obsessed with space, physics, biology, technology and more. He lives in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 26 Comments

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  1. 1. J'Carlin 1:08 pm 07/8/2011

    Both trucks and family vans have a place in the world. The mistake was trying to make them into one vehicle. NASA had alternatives and shot themselves in the foot by choosing the shuttle. No flexibility, no possibility of using newer technology for either the truck or the van. As those of us working on post Apollo projects used to say how does NASA get a bunch of bricks from CA to NY? Load them in the trunks of Ferrari’s and then drive the Ferrari’s back empty. There were many proposals for non-man rated space trucks that were cheap, cheap, cheap in terms of $/lb in orbit. But no bling. Even the man rated alternatives for astronauts were boring. Cheap but boring.

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  2. 2. ronburley 1:30 pm 07/8/2011

    I guess the shuttle hasn’t done much for space exploration, except the Hubble Telescope, International Space Station, 99 space satellites, three interplanetary exploration vehicles, and countless scientific experiments that depended upon a stable weightless platform in orbit. The shuttle also advanced our interplanetary aspirations by providing a platform for numerous human bio-science experiments that helped us understand the potential effects of long-term spaceflight–such as travel to other planets, asteroids, mars, etc. But… you apparently got more journalistic mileage out of whining than objectively researching the shuttle program. I hope you at least got a stale sandwich for your trouble.

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  3. 3. ennui 2:56 pm 07/8/2011

    Hello Dave,
    Nasa was offered the technology of the Flying Saucer in 1980. If applied to the Shuttles they could have been flown for many more years at a fraction of Nasa’s preferred costs of One billion per flight.
    Look at One Terminal Capacitor and wonder who America’s friends are.

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  4. 4. smiler03 3:57 pm 07/8/2011

    You do indeed seem to be a bit of a whiner. You’re too young to have experienced Apollo but I’m fairly sure you must have learnt something about it. If you have then it ought to be blindingly obvious that the Shuttle Program has sustained the public’s interest over a much longer period than Apollo did, your "Generation" hasn’t been as deprived as you imagine.

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  5. 5. Percival 3:57 pm 07/8/2011

    Feel ripped off, do you Dave? I was five years old when Sputnik went up. Kennedy’s 1961 speech filled my nine-year-old mind with wonder. When Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, I decided I would retire from a career as a mining engineer on Mars.

    But no, Johnson’s Great Society was more important. Look where that led. Are poverty and racial inequality abolished? Is our society more "great" than it was then in any significant way?

    I am amazed to see anything promoting manned space exploration in Scientific American these days. Don’t give up, Dave, spread the word.

    Maybe I’ll live long enough to be buried on Mars.

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  6. 6. davemosher 4:13 pm 07/8/2011

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. Will package my response into one beefy comment:

    bjnicholls: Never said I was bitten – I used a DEET wipe :) The intent of my description wasn’t to be whiny, but to paint a picture of NASA’s "sunset photo opportunity" (their words), including the collective sentiment of the hundreds of media present. I did that because the wrinkles in this event seemed like a good vessel to convey thoughts I’ve had since 2007. Is it a crappy analogy? Maybe, and fair enough. But let’s avoid ad hominem and have a real discussion about the core issue here: What’s NASA time and budget best spent on when it comes to human spaceflight? And where is the cohesive, clear, and grand vision from U.S. political leaders? I haven’t seen that yet. Only posturing.

    J’Carlin: I wasn’t alive when decisions surrounding shuttle were made. But the archive I’ve plowed through over the years suggests you’re correct.

    ronburley: You insinuate I don’t see the value of the space shuttle program, but I do and spell that out — albeit briefly — in this post. The program has done amazing things and NASA has learned an incredible amount from it and the space station (and they’ll continue to do so). No risk, no reward.

    My argument is that NASA needs to avoid business as usual in the future. Their brainpower is capable of so much more than the drawn-out incrementalism we’ve seen. It’s not conducive to public interest, healthy budgets and the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in this country. If we’re really interested in inspiring new generations and evolving the capability of our species, we need another Grand Vision. A real spaceship with an incredible destination. It’s hard to hope for something rivaling Apollo in even my lifetime, but I can dream.

    We need to ensure low-Earth orbit is left to commercial interests, leaving NASA to better focus its efforts on something so amazing that it requires government and/or multiple-nation support and involvement. I need to make clear this isn’t a beat-up-NASA fest. They’re at the mercy of political winds. As Michael Leinbach said this week, people at NASA are implementers — they need to be fed a vision, and the support to follow through on what they’ve been asked to do.

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  7. 7. JamesDavis 4:14 pm 07/8/2011

    When I was a small child, President Kennedy got me all worked up about a man-occupied spaceship going to the moon and beyond. I have gotten grey-hair now waiting for the beyond.

    I am now getting wrinkles waiting to see that laser-mounted platform vaporize our space junk…heck, I was even hoping to get a couple shots off myself.

    As fast as NASA is moving, there may be a new species of human on this planet that will set foot on Mars. I just hope they will look a little bit like us present day humans.

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  8. 8. Alfaduetto 4:19 pm 07/8/2011

    I love my roadster, but I don’t haul horse manure in it, still need that smelly old pickup truck. Further, if we are depending on the Soviets for taxi service without an alternate, there will be dead people in the space station.

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  9. 9. smiler03 4:32 pm 07/8/2011

    Hi Dave,

    It’s a shame you didn’t write this instead of the original article. Seriously, Bravo!

    I find it hard to conceive a long distance spaceship without some sort of space freighter. For now we’re stuck with gravity. Constellation was on the right track I think but we know what happened their. I’d have loved to see a manned moon base in my lifetime but that opportunity has gone. Private little spaceships augmenting/replacing Soyuz don’t seem much of a future to me. Here’s hoping for something amazing in your lifetime. Many regards, Ian.

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  10. 10. HowardB 4:36 pm 07/8/2011

    I stayed up late when I was young to see Armstrong land. It was exhilarating. But the reality is that it was a total miracle it happened. Technology wasn’t nearly ready and it is only in the Shuttle era that the materials and computer technology caught up with our ambitions.
    The Shuttle program provided the essential grounding in the technology of space needed to go further with confidence.
    It’s all well and good whining about money and going further. But the fact is the US doesn’t have the money ! 30 million people without healthcare ! 9.2% unemployed ! It is selfish and self serving for the Space Industry to be demanding such expenditure at this time.
    Hopefully in 10 years things will be better and we can all resume the dream.

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  11. 11. J'Carlin 5:08 pm 07/8/2011

    I agree that real manned space exploration is needed for public support. Geeks don’t care. But to support space exploration you need cheap low earth orbit trucks. See wiki Sea Dragon (rocket) e.g. best estimate $100/kg in orbit then. No sunset photo ops but the job gets done.

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  12. 12. gzuckier 5:26 pm 07/8/2011

    Nobody mentioned that aside from the divergent roles of space truck and exploratory vehicle, the shuttle was also designed for various classified military missions as well. So we’re not only combining a sports car and a pickup truck, we’re throwing a little Hummer DNA in there as well.

    But, realistically, if we decided to return to the moon, how long would it take us to do so? Was the effort that took two human nations 250,000 miles into space unsustainable? Are we seeing Fermi’s Paradox in action?

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  13. 13. Mr. Peabody II 8:21 pm 07/8/2011

    Dave Mosher is the most sanctimonious, spoiled, whining excuse for a science journalist I have ever read. He represents the attitude that fuels not only the destruction of the space program, but the destruction of the best of American culture. The publication of this childish drivel bodes the "sunset" of Scientific American itself.

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  14. 14. mybadcomputer 9:53 pm 07/8/2011

    Yes…you are 20 something, as evidenced by the inconvenience you suffer at experiencing first hand something any number of Americans would truly appreciate. On whole I agree with your other sentiments. Big business might probably do it better. Of course were talking about the big businesses that our Bureaucratic government doesn’t have to "Bail Out". You neglect to mention that going into space isn’t a trip around the block. The shuttle regularly travels up to orbits of about 23,000 miles above earth, or 12,144,0000 feet above earth. I doubt you have been far above 45,000 feet. It required being willing to sit on top of a giant bomb consisting of 2 chemical solid boosters generating 2,800,000 lbf, and an external tank generating 1,225,704 lbf. Also experiencing 3+ G’s for several minutes. Then there is that stuff in space called vacuum that is really bad for the lungs. Oh, then there’s that pesky reentry stuff where if you get it wrong you burn up and die. No, not a walk in the park. Sure Space Ship One climbed 328,491 feet, suffering some serious near fatal malfunctions during the trip. I don’t see Virgin Galactic making the 6 month 33,92,6867 mile to Mars any time soon. NASA has a yearly budget of about 18.7 billion, not hard for several huge corporations to match if they wanted, but also not nearly close to our defense budget of $1.415 trillion a year. If your generation truly have the vision for space pioneering (as I do), then make some changes so we can really get there.

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  15. 15. TravelinBrian 12:27 am 07/9/2011

    How many of these things could have been launched on cheaper, unmanned rockets? All? Almost. The shuttle only had an advantage in Hubble servicing and building the space station. This was an expensive boondoggle that shackled us to low earth orbit for 30 years.

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  16. 16. Elderlybloke 4:19 am 07/9/2011

    Give it to them Dave,some of these old coots are a bit cranky,but they were probably much like you many(pre Appolo) moons ago.

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  17. 17. davemosher 12:26 pm 07/9/2011

    Care to explain your point other than using the anonymity of the Internet to provide unsubstantiated criticism?

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  18. 18. davemosher 5:58 pm 07/9/2011

    Anyone can consider me to be whatever they want, including spoiled. But I know how special viewing Atlantis up-close was, and appreciated the experience as I have several times in the past. Does acknowledging that make me spoiled? In my defense, I’d like to say it makes me lucky.

    I also appreciate the spacecraft’s safety in light of its complexity, its ability to launch like a rocket and land like an airplane, the work its crews accomplished, etc. It’s harsh to call it a freight truck, yes, but that’s the basic function. And to NASA’s credit they did check off their basic missions — just like photographers did out by the launch pad by snapping photos for their news agencies/clients (sunset or no). But in both cases the full promise never came through. The limited number of flights a year, the cost, etc. tarnished the program’s promise in many ways. I think it’s a shame, being a fan of human spaceflight.

    Military vs. other expenditures: I’d love to see some of the hundreds of billions spent on weapons/intelligence/etc. each year diverted to nobler causes, including spaceflight.

    In response to smiler03: It’s tough to spell out every issue in a single blog post. Which is why the comments section is so useful :)

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  19. 19. mybadcomputer 8:39 pm 07/9/2011

    I never used the word spoiled Dave, and I understand that you were setting a mood to give readers a sense of how people felt at that final launch…really the end of an era that never quite materialized the fantastic ideas some have about exploring space. Also I mentioned that I agree with your sentiments. I am a huge sci-fi fan and love the idea of "Going where no man has gone before". After going to the moon our space program fizzled. But it’s not NASA’s fault that they built a truck…that’s where that Big Business, that in your words could do it better, came in. They wanted a satellite hauler, a repair vehicle, and a lab to perform zero grav experiments. I would say in retrospect that NASA allowed itself to be too swayed by commercial interest instead of dreaming big. But their hands have always been tied by bureaucratic machinations. NASA has always really been a lame duck, even the greatest mission, going to the moon and getting back accomplishes only a "we were here first" notation in history. Sure we’ve got satellites galore and Tang to show for our expensive space program…but colonies on Mars…with no program at all we will never get there.

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  20. 20. nogod 1:06 am 07/10/2011

    lol your funny!

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  21. 21. davemosher 9:41 am 07/11/2011

    No, you didn’t use that word — that’s more of a response to a theme I’m reading here in the comments. My apologies for the lack of clarity.

    That’s an interesting perspective, re: NASA being too swayed by commercial interests. I wonder how much of that was/is indirect, through lobbying in Washington by large aerospace companies raised on expensive weapons development programs. Most of the new, lightweight, efficiency prizing commercial companies, however, seem to me to be at odds with the old guard. So, I have more faith in them to develop the hardware and the promise to take humans somewhere astounding.

    I agree that more should have been done with Apollo. One argument suggest the amount of capital spent to fund that program in the time it existed was too much for a single nation to bear the burden, but I’m a bit skeptical of that (especially when you compare defense program costs). That’s a big reason why I’m all for international collaboration in human exploration. If the space station does nothing else, it proves we can play nice in space and do something amazing. And help pacify — for lack of a better phrase — tightwads who want load-sharing.

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  22. 22. jack.123 7:25 pm 07/13/2011

    When I look back on history.I find numerous examples where critics were completely wrong,with the Louisiana Purchase being a prime example,Jefferson was attacked on all sides saying it was a complete waste of money.When the money could be spent on much more important things.Although it took decades,the fruit from the planting of this seeds has paid off millions fold.The shuttle program is hopefully but a rung on a ladder to much greater things.We now can pursue robotic missions now that technology has caught up where in 20 or 30 years ago these would have cost a multitude more to do.Now is the time to start sending robots to asteroids for the purpose of mining rare-earth minerals and returning them to Earth.The nations that do this first will be the powers of the rest of the 21 1st century,with all others left playing catchup.

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  23. 23. Dr. Strangelove 8:45 pm 07/13/2011

    Going to Mars is a romantic ideal for a 20-something. But the fact is robots are more suitable for space exploration than humans. They are safer, cheaper and faster.

    The future of space exploration is smarter robots, faster ion rockets exploring our solar system. In the far future, humans may be able to catch up with robots. In the meantime, NASA should develop the space elevator. That would drastically reduce the cost of putting a payload in low-earth orbit.

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  24. 24. Cosmoknot 9:58 pm 07/13/2011

    I was in High School when Challenger went off. They should have cancelled the shuttles at that point and gone with something more realistic. NASA’s publicity stunt to get the public to back their bloated shuttle program backfired in their face when instead of putting the first teacher into space, they blew that teacher up in front of her classroom full of kids and the whole nation.
    Teacher into space… come on.

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  25. 25. Ronald Patrick Marriott 10:23 pm 07/13/2011

    Now that Antimatter has been caught, They’ll find that it will float a bunch of weight to space. I discovered antimatter from Lightning and am preparing to duplicate the process. When I do we’ll have many new inventions from not only antimatter but force fields as well.With Mantle we can create new Jobs and Careers for everyone around the world, Turn desert to Oasis..Make atmospheres on other planets, Travel in space in artificial atmospheres and at dimensional speed or light speed, Build worm holes thru space and Oceans… Charge the earths Ley Lines and have Magnetic Trains run across the earths surface with no tracks and continue into space on the same highway… Use force fields to live under water and space, their responsible for our dimensional world that means inventions we cant build here can be built there and brought back here as some thing new. There is no end to the great discovery, ALSO…..Law of Attraction taught in schools along with the other universal laws so children can manifest their own world and not rely on their parents , who are usually to busy to explain or society and the present educational system. Were all born with this knowledge and it needs proper instruction. Talk about putting Crime out of business, this will be the start. Teaching how to love and to carry it in your heart will eliminate a lot of Bullying!

    " This is the only place within telescopes view with Magic!" (that we can see)

    Lovin the ride,

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  26. 26. spacejunky 4:36 pm 07/16/2011

    I’m actually sorry that your generation feels as if it got a "truck", expensive at that. It does, however, beat the bicycle that my generation got which was just as expensive, if not more so. Space exploration and NASA made many of the things that you take for granted as a generation possible due to the research and hard work of those who were involved. Not forgetting the accidents that occurred because we thought, as you did, at times that the process was in some way slow or a self-defined cluster of commedians. Godspeed to those of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, the casualties of a self-induced time schedule. We too had thoughts of why are we shooting all this money into the sky? It could be used to solve problems here at home. The answer was the technology.
    Our country has been on the forefront of technological advances that have made us strong, rich, and a leader in the world. Our standard of living is the best on the planet, where American poor are extremely rich by other countries standards. Simply said, we are fortunate to have what we’ve got. I too would like to see an endeaver in space that would unite us and put us back to work. The jobs created would solve our financial problems in a heartbeat. The short answer is that the space program like any other national endeavor will take political will to hang in there and make it happen. Had we not had political will, you wouldn’t have even gotten the promise of a launch at sunset.

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