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Dad, the Apollos and the End of Space Shuttle Era Sadness


I can't even recall a time that I wasn't cognisant of the fact that I lived in a country that actively pioneered space exploration. I remember sitting on wicker hassock in my Dad's study, as a child and asking lots of questions. Dad would light his pipe, lean back in his big red chair, blow circular smoke rings and try his best to answer them.

Our conversations spanned space, time, eliptical orbits and the outer reaches of the solar system. When the Viking landed, a panoramic Scientific American centerfold displaying the rocky Martian surface was scotch taped to the wall next to Dad's desk.

When fly-by Voyager images of Jupiter became available, the close ups detailing stormclouds and volcanoes were taped to the wall, as well. As the Voyagers, Pioneers and Vikings made their way across the solar system, astronauts hovered between a mythical past and an uncertain future. Yes, there were reasons but they were reasons I was reluctant to accept. If cameras could go there, why couldn't astronauts?

On the white credenza, behind the heaping stacks of manila file folders and reporter pads, white model Saturn V rocket towered just out of my reach. Dad could occasionally be persuaded to take it down and demonstrate how the liquid fuel jets, chambers and motors dropped off after lift-off. Entering the moon's orbit, the rocket was further disassembled enabling two Apollo Astronauts to explore the lunar surface.

Before I was born, Dad's push to terminate the Apollos had an additional component that never got realized. Reducing the number of annual manned moon missions from three times a year to one would have saved NASA the equivalent of $10 billion a year. This saving, according to the numbers that he crunched at the Office of Management and Budget, would be enough to fund unmanned visits to every planet except for Pluto (which was a planet back then). The proposed alternative, however, never came to pass and by the time I was born Dad had transferred over to the National Arts Endowment.

Shortly after Columbia launched the Shuttle Program, Dad's criticism of it made the New York Times and my third grade teacher asked me to summarize this for the class:

Richard Speier, an analyst who reviewed the space budget for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, says it may even be time to consider abandoning the shuttle effort.

''The shuttle's problems are much deeper than a fuel cell not working,'' he said in an interview. ''Very likely the program is not a good buy. I shrink from saying it should absolutely be terminated until I see the cost of putting the same missions on expendable rockets. But even at this point in the game, I wouldn't be surprised if we could afford, with less than a single year's shuttle budget, to develop a better expendable that could launch payloads greater than the shuttle's.''

Mr. Speier notes that expendable rockets are highly reliable, while the reliability of the shuttle has yet to be determined. Should a single shuttle crash, he says, the size of the proposed fleet of four would be cut 25 percent. Belated discovery of a safety problem common to all shuttles, he adds, could disrupt the entire space program. Mr. Speier believes there should be a prompt and quick reassessment of whether the shuttle commitment is worth continuing. 'It Is Not Routine'

Even today, years later with degrees, productions and publications under my belt, I doubt it would be any easier to summarize. Two shuttles were lost along with their crews. The program went way over budget and NASA, once again, faces a problematic future.

At the same time, how can I ever forget the day my elementary school librarian wheeled the television set into the hallway where the entire school had gathered on April 12th 1981. The wait was long and the lift off brief but oh, the plume...

Late Thursday night after the tweets announcing the Atlantis rolled onto the launch pad appeared on my stream, I burrowed under the covers and cried. I cried because my country's dream of human spaceflight was coming to an end.

Images: Model of Saturn on the floor at Udvar-Hazy photo by Todd Palino, Saturn schematic from Wikimedia Commons, First launch of Columbia shuttle in 1981 from NASA, Last launch of Atlantis shuttle in 2011 from NASA.

About the Author: Susanna Speier is not a scientist. The "ear" for layman-friendly science explanations, that The New York Times deemed "excellent," however, helps her gain back door access. She talks to scientists whenever she can and conversations sometimes turn into collaborations. Five of her plays have been produced; over 100 of her articles have been published and one of her screenplays remains in liminal purgatory. She dayjobs as a freelance social media specialist and digital journalist.

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

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

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