The shuttle program is over: What's next?

-July 28, 2011

Patrick Mannion headshotRecently, while reading The New York Times, I came across yet another mournful paean to the last space-shuttle flight. Despite my better judgment, I read it and gagged on my bottled water. Here’s what made me gag: In the letter to the editor, the writer stated that “the mysteries we uncover in outer space will … give us a better sense of our purpose in this vast and largely empty universe.” The letter writer then turned to the usual nice fallback of why we should stop making scopes for weapons and start making telescopes instead (Reference 1). Does anyone really believe our sense of purpose will come from out there? I don’t. It lies right here.

Talkback buttonNow, don’t get me wrong. As a techie, I can think of few more inspiring achievements than the first moonwalk and am well-aware of the many advances that were by-products of that great adventure. I’ve got my autographed Buzz Aldrin books, and I’ve been to every space museum I can find. Just last week, on a clear night, my son and I lay back and just looked at the stars in sheer amazement and wonder.

The shuttle program is over: What’s next? imageHowever, I also recently read another article, from which I learned that President Obama is walking out of meetings just as the United States, with more than $14 trillion of debt, is about to default on its loans (Reference 2). Just before reading these articles, I had taken a cab to the San Francisco International Airport. During the ride, the driver talked about the fact that only 60% of students in Oakland, CA, graduate from high school and that most of those students have only an eighth-grade-level education. I know it’s anecdotal, but don’t tell me that our education system isn’t in trouble. There’s currently a furor over the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which evaluates 15-year-olds worldwide. Among the 65 countries that participated in the study, the United States ranked 15th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. So, although I grew up on dreams of space travel, moon landings, and the engineers who got us there, I’m now more concerned about projects here on earth.

A few months ago, I gave the Electronic Products product-of-the-year award to an engineer from Texas Instruments who invented an IC that could help in the design of mobile medical devices. When I spoke with him, I could almost hear the emotion in his voice when he discussed how mobile electrocardiograms in villages throughout India and elsewhere could benefit from his product. And, in Silicon Valley, I recently heard about students who banded together to build robotic legs for a fellow student who had lost his own.

I see Japan calling for the move away from nuclear power—without a substitute to fill its energy needs. And the same scenario applies to the United States: Is nuclear fusion even an option? Can it be a goal? Is it worth pursuing? Some say it is, within magnetically controlled million-degree-Celsius containment fields, but I wonder. Is it still a pipe dream? But so was the moon, at one time.

So, with all that’s going on with the economy and all that ails us here on earth, how would you split $10 of your R&D money? Would you put manned space at the top or the bottom of a list that includes education, energy, medical, and military? What would you add to the list? I believe that the shuttle program has run its course, though I’m all for unmanned space exploration. It’s a lot cheaper and keeps us in the game, but it would go at the bottom of the preceding list.

This issue is contentious, and I’m probably going to get a lot of flak, but seriously, what do you think should be our next “moon shot”? I can think of many others, besides landing on the next rock.

  1. Pravica, Michael, “The Last Shuttle: A Paean to Spaceflight,” The New York Times, July 13, 2011.
  2. Paletta, Damian; Carol E Lee; and Matt Philips, “Raters put U.S. on Notice,” The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011, pg 1.

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