The space shuttle program has exhausted its possibilities after 30 years, and there are plenty of economic and scientific arguments for its termination. The end of shuttle flights is surely a metaphor for the present reality of an America looking inward toward the depths of its budget and into the abyss of its debts rather than toward new goals on the horizon of the imagination.
It was the previous president, George W. Bush, who decided in 2004 to end the shuttle program. It was obvious that the original intention, as NASA presented it in the early 1970s, would never be fulfilled. Instead of cheap, safe and routine transport to space, the shuttle flights became a very expensive business.
A single launch comes to about $450 million, according to NASA figures; independent expert estimates put it at $1.5 billion, about 100 times more than the original estimates.
The program never got out from under the shadow of two catastrophes. With the completion of the International Space Station, it has lost its reason for existence, so the end of the program was a logical verdict.
Yet the nostalgia and sadness dripping from the headlines of American newspapers these days, when they write about the launch of the last shuttle, testify to something else. They speak of NASA’s slim budget and the politicians who can’t give the agency a clear mission; about the massive economic woes of the whole country, and the fact that the House Appropriations Committee just this week proposed that Congress cancel NASA’s funding for the construction of a new space telescope to replace the dying Hubble Space Telescope.
America is not lifting its gaze to the stars. Maybe this is only for the time being, but it has been long since its “earthly” troubles have combined like they have at present. In an April Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans surveyed expressed the fear that their children would be worse off than they are. That is the worst result in a quarter-century. And in a new study by the New York Times, 40 percent answered that the recent economic recession is really the beginning of a permanent American economic decline. Just a year ago, a “mere” 28 percent of respondents feared such a future.
The space shuttle program has exhausted its possibilities. Its end is indeed the reflection of an exhausted America. One can only hope that the Latin phrase “per aspera ad astra” — “through hardships to the stars” — will hold true; if only America would once again find the courage, the strength and the grand vision.