Why the retirement of the Space Shuttle signifies the end of one phase of the space age and the opening of another. [caption id="attachment_4513" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="End of the Shuttle era - but what's next? (NASA)."][/caption] This week renowned global magazine The Economist ran a front cover story entitled ‘The End of The Space Age’, positing that the last flight of the Space Shuttle would see humanity finally give up on manned spaceflight, imprisoned within a 36,000km 'bubble' from which we would no longer venture into the great void. Inner space exploitation - in the form of satellites - would still continue, but 'outer space' exploration would be finished, it argued, with the last flight of the Atlantis Orbiter - set to launch imminently. Is this gloomy view justified? First – the Space Shuttle – like all ‘flying’ machines is a compromise. True it never achieved the weekly flight rate that was originally predicted. True also that it is amazingly expensive ($196.5bn) and that 14 people lost their lives flying in this vehicle. But it was never designed (as the article seems to imply) to go further beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) anyway – merely operate as a (partly) reusable space ‘truck’. In that sense, it has proved a versatile and extremely useful transport and scientific vessel, launching satellites, hosting experiments (including Spacelab) and hauling large pieces of the International Space Station into orbit. Its crowning glory, which some critics even say was worth the ultimate cost (both in dollars and lives) was the Hubble Space Telescope – and its repairs – an instrument that has opened an unparalleled window on the universe. [caption id="attachment_4514" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="NASA's new MPCV spacecraft will be aimed at deep-space exploration. (NASA)."][/caption] It is also true that there is no replacement NASA man-rated spacecraft ready to take over its mission as soon as the wheels touchdown. Near misses and failures, such as the X-30 NSAP, X-33 VentureStar and the axed Constellation project mean that NASA will have to wait for its MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle)- a based on the Orion capsule for any future deep space missions. However that does not mean human spaceflight is over and we will be confined to a 36,000km ‘bubble’ – for three good reasons.

Look east

[caption id="attachment_4515" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="China's plans for space extend far beyond LEO. "][/caption] First, while, the ‘American government human spaceflight age’ may be paused – pending a new launch system – the rest of the world is still moving ahead. Russia, for example, will continue (at a price) to transport crews up to the ISS using its tried and tested reliable Soyuz rockets. But for real ambition we must look to China and India. Beijing has already put a man in orbit, with ever more elaborate plans, such as a space station and Moon outpost. Will it stop just at planting a flag on the Moon? Perhaps – but it also has a regional rival in the shape of India – another growing space nation – which also has said it plans to make a manned Moon landing by 2020. These two up and coming 21st century Asian superpowers may spark off a new even more dynamic space race as each seeks to outdo the other. With each country having a larger population than the US and producing engineers at a staggering rate, who is to say that this human talent will not be harnessed to plant a Chinese or Indian flag on Mars? Even the UK, traditionally reticent about the benefits of human spaceflight, is now finding that a new confident, muscular approach seems to be working with the establishment of the UK Space Agency and the selection of the first UK ESA astronaut Tim Peake and in raising the profile of Britain's satellite industry. Human interest, therefore plays a key role in bringing in the ‘Bucks’ for the Buck Rogers, engaging public support and sustaining unmanned scientific spaceflight. It also crucially sparks interest in the younger generation – encouraging them to study maths, engineering and the like –as the generation who were inspired by the Apollo adventure kept the US at the forefront of the technological race over the past decades.

USS (free) Enterprise

[caption id="attachment_4516" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Space-X's Falcon Heavy promises a breakthrough in launch costs. (Space-X)."][/caption] Secondly the retirement of the Shuttle has opened up the path for commercial space companies such as Space-X, Virgin Galactic and Reaction Engines (to name but three) to compete, innovate and expand in providing services, launches and even space tourism. Even well established companies like Boeing and EADS Astrium see potential – Boeing signing an agreement with 'new space' company Bigelow Aerospace and also being shortlisted by NASA for its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contest. EADS Astrium, meanwhile, has proposed a man-rated version of its ATV. Will all of these commercial enterprises succeed? Unlikely. Will space tourism remain a ‘niche’ business for the ultra rich? Perhaps. Will governments still need to regulate? Most probably. But just as manned aviation grew from tiny beginnings to the mass global transit system of today – so too could this competition spur innovation and reduce costs. There may even be new, as yet unthought, of commercial space opportunities (removing space junk?) that could be made profitable .

Robotic probes

[caption id="attachment_4517" align="alignnone" width="222" caption="Robotic space probes will continue exploration - but what if they find something that changes everything? (NASA)."][/caption] Finally – we still have robotic probes that continue to explore the cosmos and bring back data – especially on our nearest neighbours in the Solar System. NASA’s Juno mission, for example, will launch in August – on a mission to explore Jupiter and its moons. Other unmanned space missions are set to launch in the near future – such as Mars Rovers, Phobos sample returns, and Venus probes – along with the successor to Hubble – the James Webb Space Telescope (now, ominously facing the axe from Congress). There is no doubt that these instruments and probes will enhance our understanding of the cosmos – but should a significant discovery be made – such as primitive life within the Solar System – then it would seem likely that humans would be sent to follow it up. In this way the retirement of the Space Shuttle can be seen as the ‘end of the beginning of the Space Age’ - with a new, more exciting era ahead of us. [caption id="attachment_4518" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="A base on Mars - but whose flag (or flags) will be flying on the surface? (NASA)."][/caption]

Tim Robinson
8 July 2011