Retreating from the final frontier

There should be more to space travel than delivering groceries to the International Space Station.

Henry Joy McCracken

Topics Science & Tech

‘By the beginning of the twenty-first century, no human will have had ventured further than 1,000 kilometres from the surface of the Earth for more than almost 40 years.’ Could anyone have imagined a future such as
this, back in the optimistic mid-twentieth century? In our future, the one that has come to pass, our ships of exploration seem more like those of Zheng He, the Chinese explorer halted by an insular Emperor. We have once again turned back at the Cape of Good Hope, with the immense unexplored European continent only a few short miles away: and all this after travelling so far….

As I write, nine humans are in orbit around the Earth. Seven of these left Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery on the morning of 26 July, the first such mission since the Columbia orbiter disintegrated in the clear blue Texan sky upon re-entry two years ago. The accident investigation panel set up after that disaster quickly determined the cause of this terrible tragedy: a lump of foam shed from the spacecraft’s main external tank during ascent. This bit of debris damaged one of the orbiter’s wings, allowing super-heated gases to penetrate the spacecraft’s airframe upon re-entry, which caused the immediate destruction of the orbiter and the loss of all the crew.

Two years later, and after over a billion dollars in orbiter improvements, the shuttle is flying again, in probably one of the most closely scrutinised missions ever (somewhere in the last 15 years of missions, people had apparently forgotten that sending humans into space is an inherently dangerous enterprise). Only a few days into the flight it was announced that launches would be indefinitely suspended because, once again, during takeoff, a large lump of insulating foam had detached itself from the main fuel tank. This time, thankfully, it had not struck the orbiter, and there was no damage reported. But NASA managers were concerned.

I’ve watched the mission unfold with more than a trace of disquiet myself, but not because of fears for the safety of the crew – this is probably the safest shuttle mission ever flown. What I really keep asking is: what is this mission really for? Thinking as a voyager and explorer, this mission is going nowhere: it is yet another grocery-delivery trip to the International Space Station (and of course the rubbish and laundry also has to be collected for the return…). Thinking about the project as an astronomer is even more painful: the cost of just one of these shuttle missions would fund half a dozen extremely productive science satellites. The main point in making manned missions into space is to do things that cannot be carried out by robotic missions controlled from the ground.

One of the high points of the shuttle’s career was the successful on-orbit repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (a similar repair mission was also carried out on the Solar Max satellite). This was exactly the sort of mission that the shuttle had been designed for, and it was a brilliant success: Hubble’s optical defect was corrected and the observatory returned to service. Since then, Hubble has made a profound contribution to our understanding of the Universe. Subsequent servicing missions have added important new capabilities to the facility, with improvements in instrumentation and electronics increasing each time the telescope’s reach.

Even today, in the era of ground-based telescopes with 10-metre apertures, the Hubble’s much smaller two-metre mirror produces unique science, due to its view of the cosmos unrestricted by atmosphere and free from terrestrial background light. One final servicing mission had been planned to Hubble in 2005, to install two new instruments and to replace gyroscopes and batteries that will probably fail in the next two years, bringing the mission to a halt.

The fate of this final servicing mission is still in question. In January 2004 NASA announced that it would be cancelled simply because the telescope is in a ‘no go’ area: Hubble’s orbit is far from the International Space Station (ISS), and should anything go wrong, there would be no possibility of sheltering in the ISS until, presumably, a rescue mission arrived. The cancellation of the servicing flight provoked howls of protest from the astronomical community (and even from the general public, who are accustomed to Hubble’s magazine-cover photographs). In response, the new NASA director promised that all possible options would be reviewed, including the incredibly expensive option of a robotic servicing mission, which would almost cost more than a new telescope. So it seemed possible that a servicing mission could take place again. Following the coverage of the latest shuttle mission, however, this is unlikely to happen.

For the past 20 years the manned spaceflight programmes have been treading down something of a blind alley, which was due in part to the origins of the space shuttle as an essentially military spacecraft designed at the height of the Cold War. One of the primary functions of the shuttle was to deliver (classified, of course) payloads into low Earth orbit. But the shuttle couldn’t compete with other launch services using much cheaper unmanned booster rockets. Now that servicing missions to other ‘assets’ in orbit has been forbidden, the last remaining task the shuttle can undertake is to complete the ISS. And the objective of the ISS? Well.…

All of this became painfully apparent after the Colombia accident. Now a corrective course has been plotted – but unfortunately, it involves sending still more missions to the ISS (although at launch we are assured that it is now ‘onward to the Moon and Mars’). Money that could be better spent developing a replacement to the shuttle capable of travelling further than low Earth orbit is instead being spent filling up the ISS fridge. NASA managers are still reluctant to cancel the shuttle missions, given remaining commitments to build the ISS.

Re-reading some documents about the Apollo mission, I was struck by just how dangerous it all seems by the standards of today’s risk-averse culture. You want to do what? Send three men to the moon? In fact, the Apollo mission seems so far beyond contemporary expectations of what humans are capable of, that conspiracy theorists argue that it never happened. They ask: if we can’t even manage to launch a shuttle into low Earth orbit, how could we possibly have visited the moon? A NASA controller, commenting on the decision to carry out a tile-repairing task on the ongoing mission, said: ‘This is the new NASA. If we cannot prove this is safe, we don’t want to go there.’ Where will we go now?

Henry Joy McCracken is an astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and the Observatoire de Paris.

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Topics Science & Tech


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