The era of American space exploration is just beginning

Today the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Cape Canaveral for STS-135, the final mission of the program. Mission Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot, Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim, will be the final United States astronauts to take off under the power of United States crafts, for the foreseeable future. Their destination will be the International Space Station, where they will deliver vital components to the orbiting platform, returning to Earth 12 days later. Once on the ground, Atlantis will join the remaining space shuttles, Discovery, Endeavour and the Enterprise, in their new lives as museum pieces around the United States.

While many have decried the end of the Space Shuttle program as America's last step into space, it won't be: the United States will continue to look to space in the long-term, much like it has throughout the history of spaceflight. Looking back over the three decades of service that the space shuttle has served, it's clear that it's played a specific, and vital role in the American consciousness. With its retirement comes the opportunity to re-examine the focus on space, and just how to get there.

The space shuttle was a compromise in design and function. Within NASA and political circles, a debate raged on as to the purpose of space travel and exploration now that the moon had been reached. With the efforts of the formative missions that made up the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, exploration of Earth and its immediate neighbor came as a priority, with the focus of the successive programs working to demonstrate that humans could indeed reach space, operate successfully in orbit, and successfully land on the Moon and return to the Earth.

The cancellation of the Apollo program led to a major transformation in the focus of space exploration. For the first time, there was no overall goal; the space race had been defined by a singular, shared focus between the Soviet Union and the United States. That focus had been accomplished, and while there was some interest in going to Mars, the budgetary environment rendered that an impossible dream. America would need to return to space in a way that captured the public's imagination, and did so cheaply.

In a recent conference in Washington DC, former NASA historian Steve Dick noted that Apollo exhibited three key elements that helped to make it a successful program, incorporating exploration, discovery and science elements within the missions. The distinctions, he noted, were important because they're used in the rhetoric that is used to describe and to justify the space programs. The space shuttle really contained elements of exploration and discovery, but that science was secondary to the functions of the shuttle – not that scientific experiments weren't conducted aboard the shuttle, but that by design, the shuttle could perform a number of functions. Furthermore, the general public never responds quite as well to science as they do with exploration. Whereas Apollo carried with it all three key elements, the space shuttle itself served mainly as a tool to achieve selective ends. Ultimately, he asserted, the space shuttle never could live up to its full capabilities or potential.

Interaction with the public was essential, and was a conscious point when the post-Apollo mission for NASA was put to paper: without general support from the public, interest in the space program would evaporate, quickly. NASA had to produce results and engage the public, and it had to do so cheaply. The American public had become increasingly unhappy with the price tag of America's space ambitions, despite the importance placed upon its success.

The report's conclusions were that NASA needed a system that was cheap, reusable and flexible: it had to hold to a number of diverse missions, shuttling astronauts to and from orbit. As NASA's budget began to fall from 1966 onwards, the Apollo program was scrapped after Apollo 17 – the only mission to be crewed by a scientist, geologist Harrison Schmidt. NASA planners shifted the prepared components of the final three missions and looked to a new mission: science in Low Earth Orbit. Skylab was born, designed for zero-gravity experimentation. It was the beginning of a new mission for NASA, one that looked not to the Moon, but back down to Earth. However, new options were looked at. Concepts for a space plane, predating the Apollo program, were looked at, focusing on a reusable design that was thought to be cheaper. In 1969, the Nixon administration pushed forward with the development of the Space Shuttle program: during Apollo 17, astronauts on the moon (including John Young, who would pilot the first shuttle mission), learned that funding had been approved.

However, as the Nixon administration took power in 1969, NASA's budget had begun to decline from its peak of $5.25 billion in 1965, as Apollo faced widespread disillusionment, in addition to a worsening economic crisis after the Johnson administration. Nixon also brought a new environment to the space race: he downplayed Cold War tensions, seeking for more international cooperation than competition. By 1972, the approval of the space shuttle was a hard sell, and possibly the only reason for its approval was the desire to avoid shutting down a highly symbolic program that had yielded many great achievements for the United States.

The result was the Space Transportation System, popularly known as the Space Shuttle. Designed as a reusable space ship, the design and purpose of the spaceship reflected the nature and purpose of the missions that NASA would begin to undertake: low earth orbit, servicing and scientific missions that supported NASA's scientific and educational mandates.

Despite its ambitious goals to change the economic dynamics of spaceflight, the Space Shuttle program never achieved its goals of cheap spaceflight. According to Walter McDougall in his landmark book on the political history of spaceflight ‘…And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age', he notes that "after five years of operation, shuttle managers never approached their ambitious flight schedules (totaling twenty-four flights rather than twelve to twenty-four flights per year and cost estimates ($650-$2,300 per pound of payload rather than the $285 [US dollars] predicted.) The additional loss of two space shuttles, the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 further cast doubts upon the viability, management and expense of the program. For the danger and amount of money spent: was the scientific mission worth it?

The space shuttle was a truck for space: designed for a variety of missions, the Shuttle's purpose was open-ended, whereas Mercury, Gemini and Apollo had very specific goals to be achieved with each mission and the completion of each program: get people into space and learn how to do it; once in space, learn how to survive and complete various essential tasks; land on the moon and return. The nature of the Space Shuttle limited America's space ambitions: an expensive program in and of itself, its existence prevented NASA from capitalizing on the gains achieved by all of the prior spaceflight programs. With the shuttle, spaceflight meant never venturing outside of a Low Earth Orbit: the first Hubble mission represented the limits of the spacecraft at 347 miles above the Earth's surface. By comparison, to reach the moon, astronauts must travel 235,000 miles out and then back again.

Plans to shift the focus of US spaceflight from the scientific missions to more exploration based ones have been proposed in the years prior to the retirement of the space shuttle, with the intention to shift - rather than simply replace - the means of space travel from one mission to another. In 2005 testimony from Administrator Griffin, "the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] was equally forthright in calling for a national consensus in the establishment of a program having broader strategic goals. The Vision for Space Exploration proposed by the President it that program, and NASA has embraced this new direction. But, to effect these changes, NASA must engage in a major transformation, taking the capabilities throughout the agency and restructuring them to achieve these 21st Century goals." (House Testimony - Find link) The plan, proposed by President Bush, called for dramatic new changes for the agency: new vehicles, crews and missions that sought, amongst other goals, to return to the moon, seeking to return to the major Apollo-style missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With the end of the space shuttle program, it's clear that NASA is facing a period of transition, much as they had during the 1970s, between the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle program: an entire seven years lapsed before America was able to send men into space again under their own power, although at that point, a followup program had been in the works. As of 2011, the agenda appears to be shifting back towards a more ambitious goal: breaking the Low Earth Orbit barrier and looking out further.

The major change from the last transitional period is that the people and organizations involved will be changing: rather than government vehicles, private enterprise will be responsible for the development and creation of the next generation of vehicles, rather than under the control of NASA. While there's little doubt that the current economic crisis begun in 2008 has fueled political falls for far lower levels of government spending – and NASA is looking at further cuts to its budget – some of these calls go back to 2003, after the destruction of the Columbia, which brought further scrutiny to the Space Shuttle program.

The aims of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs were completely different, but for all of the scientific advances brought on by the space shuttle, it became a program that acted as a placeholder for America's ambitions in space. A useful service to maintain and place satellites and to help install the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle didn't expand the reach of humanity beyond the Earth. With the cancellation of the program, there's a great deal of pessimism aimed at NASA: based on the history and nature of the program, the turn of events should be looked at as an opportunity for what comes next with human spaceflight.

As other nations join us above the Earth, it will be imperative for the United States to keep a presence there as well, and the best way to maintain that is to implement a strategic program to turn LEO into a way-point for objects further out, such as asteroids or Mars, rather than a destination in and of itself. While America won't be able to carry astronauts up under its own power for the immediate couple of years, replacements, such as the spaceships being constructed and tested by companies such as SpaceX, are currently underway. While the future is far from certain, I have every confidence that the United States will be returning to space in the near future.

AP Photo by Reinhold Matay