The Atlantis has Launched… What's Next?

By | July 9, 2011

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The final Space Shuttle launch yesterday was bittersweet. The Shuttle was the workhorse that gave us the International Space Station and an operational Hubble Space Telescope.  

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But the Shuttle failed miserably in the goal of making spaceflight routine and cheap.  And, tragically, the shuttle did not prove to be as safe as hoped.  355 people rode the shuttle, 14 people died doing so. That’s a 4% fatality rate. That fact alone is sufficient to keep the Shuttle from being a permanent route to orbit.
Space Shuttle Discovery landing at Barksdale A...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve loved that dumpy space truck ever since I was a kid.  I watched with great interest the testing of the Enterprise, and then, on April 12, 1981, the first shuttle launch.  
In 1984 I saw the Enterprise up close at the World’s Fair in New Orleans.  Twice I witnessed shuttles flown on the back of 747′s land at Barksdale Air Force Base.
This poster resided on my bedroom wall from age 12 until I went off to college:
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So perhaps you can understand the downer email I sent Phil yesterday: 
If a family’s one-and-only car is retired – and the family has no idea when they’ll have another car – wouldn’t that be considered, generally, a very bad thing for the family?
It seems sad to me that the last shuttle mission just took off and the next-gen space ship isn’t back in the hanger getting a final coat of wax.
Phil’s informed optimism wouldn’t let that stand.  He fired back:
Sure it is. It’s just not in the NASA hanger — it’s over at SpaceX.
Phil’s right:
Dragon is a spacecraft developed by SpaceX, a space transportation company based in Hawthorne, California. In December 2010, it became the first spacecraft ever placed in orbit and recovered by a private company. The first operational Dragon missions will be flown for NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Dragon is designed to carry up to seven people, or a mixture of personnel and cargo, to and from low Earth orbit. These flights will be contracted under the Commercial Resupply Services program.
Dragon’s heat shield is designed to withstand re-entry velocities from potential lunar and Martian space flights
In June 2009, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the company planned to conduct the maiden flight of the Dragon spacecraft in 2009, and have the capsule enter service in 2010, before the scheduled final flight of the Space Shuttle.
On December 8, 2010, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying an unmanned SpaceX Dragon lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on COTS Demo Flight 1. The launch was a success, and the Dragon cleanly separated from the Falcon approximately 10 minutes after launch. Three hours of orbital maneuvering testing were conducted at an altitude of 300 kilometres (190 mi; 160 nmi) before a deorbit burn was conducted, putting the Dragon on a re-entry course that ended in a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 800 kilometres (500 mi; 430 nmi) west of Mexico’s Pacific coast.
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I stand corrected. 
Like the Arms Race, the Space Race demonstrated that a government program funded by a command economy loses to a government program funded by a free economy.
  
Now the free economy will take the lead. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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