Space, the final frontier...
Discovery seems to have the dubious honor of being the first shuttle launched after a major disaster. She was the first one to fly after Challenger, and now she has done her phoenix impression post Columbia. I tried to watch the launch from the roof of my theatre today, but it was too cloudy to see.
Now those of you who know me know that I love everything about space exploration. I remember watching the Apollo missions; my 5 year old brain barely comprehending what was happening, but understanding it was something important. I remember Skylab going up, and coming down. I saved the newspaper from the very first Shuttle launch (Columbia's first mission), and I remember exactly what I was doing when the Challenger blew. I grew up watching Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Thunderbirds, and just about any other show that dealt with space, and if it weren't for a terrible aptitude for math, I would probably have gone into aviation with the hopes of becoming an astronaut. So this may seem strange coming from me, but I think it's time for NASA to shut down.
Now before you get all hufffy, hear me out. The fact that it took two and a half years to get back to the launch pad after Columbia is indicative of the inertia experienced by any government project. It used to be that governments were the only ones with the financial wherewithal to fund a space program, but every year Congress whittles a little more away from NASA's budget, and the pundits constantly bicker about whether we should be spending tax dollars to send man into space. It's so dangerous, they'll argue, so why not send robots. And we do send a lot of robots. But pushing the frontiers of human knowledge back has always been a risky venture, and often the greatest strides come from commercial interest. Space exploration will never boom unless and until it becomes profitable to do so. That's why I imagine that in the future Neil Armstrong's name will stand along with Burt Rutan, and Richard Branson in the annals of space history. Rutan designed and flew Spaceship One, the first private vehicle to fly safely to the edge of space and back twice in two months. He has teamed with eccentric billionaire Branson to lay the groundwork for space tourism...and that's where the real future of space flight lies. People will pay dearly for something that entertains them, even if they will decry it as frivolous the whole time. Imagine how much money the Disney company makes with its 11 theme parks, and movie and television studios. Now imagine if they put those resources toward say creating Disney World: Sea of Tranquility. If Branson succeeds with his Virgin: Galactic venture there will be a boom in space tourism companies which might even get the prices down to where ordinary schmucks like me could afford a once-in-a-lifetime trip to orbit in my lifetime. Right now it can cost ten's of thousands of dollars per pound of payload to get into orbit, but with numerous designs for reusable SSO (single stage to orbit) spacecraft being proposed, and a possible attempt at a space elevator sometime this century, space travel could get very crowded. I'm excited to be alive at this point in history, but I think that unless NASA does a radical paradigm shift soon, they and their rapidly aging fleet of orbiters will be left in the cosmic dust.
But all that aside, congratulations to Discovery and her crew. Godspeed.