As the Shuttle Mission Ends, Analyzing the Cost of Exploration

Private industry has little reason to invest in endeavors where the result is not returns, but greater scientific knowledge or understanding


Sometime Friday, or in the next few days, weather and mechanics permitting, the very last Space Shuttle mission will depart the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. For some, this marks a great loss in our national vision, capability and space endeavors. To my mind (and I've written six books on NASA history, so I have at least a bit of background on the subject), the ending of the Shuttle program is merely an ending of a chapter -- and a less-than-overwhelmingly productive chapter, at that.

In an article on the closing down of the Shuttle program in Tuesday's Science Times, space writer Dennis Overbye called the Shuttle "the space truck to nowhere." Fun for the astronauts involved, somehow cool to think humans were still leaving the planet but ... with the notable exceptions of servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and a couple of other satellites ... an era rather devoid of any astounding expansions in science, understanding or capability." It's why commercial companies may well be able to take over the bulk of the relatively simple (relative being the operative word, there) low Earth orbit experiences and supply missions.

But exploration of the cosmos still takes an enormous amount of commitment and investment. Which is to say ... money. Federal, government money.

Leaving the planet is still a vastly difficult and risk-laden operation -- note the difficulty that the commercial space companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (who are developing commercial space vehicles and launch systems) have had developing successful rockets and launching them on schedule. But enabling humans to see the Earth from space and taking supplies to low Earth orbit are not cutting-edge exploratory missions. They're an engineering challenge, to be sure, but NASA has already greatly reduced the risks involved through its 30 years of testing, improving and flying the Shuttles. That's what NASA is supposed to do. Go somewhere first, and in cases where technology might hold promise for commercial development, reduce the risk of the technologies involved enough so that private industry can, in good stockholder conscience, take on the risk of developing commercial applications of that technology.

But what of the greater human mission of exploration? Of boldly going where no one has gone before? Of taking great risks to discover great new worlds, or capabilities or understanding? The sobering fact is that actually may be at risk -- but not because of the ending of the Shuttle program.

Along with the ending of the Shuttle program, this week also marked the one millionth observation by the Hubble Space Telescope. Over the past 20 years, the Hubble, as it's affectionately known, has opened the eyes of scientists and schoolchildren alike to just how vast, mysterious and glorious the universe really is. It's shown us, in various wavelengths, the composition of stars, exoplanets and patches of the cosmos we once saw only as black spaces in between the visible stars. It has changed the minds of scientists and physicists, let alone the average person, about whether there is, in fact, intelligent life and carbon-based life on other planets besides our own. We may not yet know how to get to those distant planets. But because of the Hubble, we now have a far better idea of how many of those places exist.

We may not yet know how to land a human on an asteroid, as President Obama has challenged NASA and the nation to do by 2025. But a NASA satellite mission called "Dawn," because its mission is to search for information about the dawn of our solar system, has already reached a protoplanet called Vesta in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter -- and is sending back images and data from Vesta daily. We have missions and probes investigating comets, dark matter, black holes, solar flares and other mysterious and powerful phenomena and celestial bodies. We may be using robotic eyes, just as surgeons in one city are now experimenting with doing remote surgery on patients residing somewhere else. But what those eyes are discovering is far more compelling and assumption-shattering than anything the Shuttle ever produced, or the Apollo-era space folk even realized existed.

But exploration of the cosmos -- even through robotic eyes -- still takes an enormous amount of commitment and investment. Which is to say ... money. Federal, government money. Why government money? For the very same reason national laboratories, NASA, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, were formed in the first place. Private industry has no incentive to invest in endeavors where either: a) the result is greater scientific knowledge or understanding, but nothing that has any hope of a fiscal return on investment, or b) cutting-edge technology whose development is so nascent that its incorporation into commercial products is simply too risky to attempt.

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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