All Good Things

July 20, 2011 - Reading time: 9 minutes

After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, Robert Crippen gave a moving eulogy that was as much about the Orbiter as it was about the crew.  In the process, he revealed a truth that you won't learn in school: engineering isn't just about cobbling something together from a collection of pieces and clever ideas - it's art; it's creation.  For many, it's creation in a profound sense: an engineer designing a spacecraft or other complex engine puts blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into their project - their creation.

When Crippen spoke at the Columbia memorial service held at the Kennedy Space Center, he told a moving story of the final mission.  Columbia "struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home once again.  She wasn't successful. [...] She, along with the Crew, had her life snuffed out while in her prime."  Columbia wasn't a piece of equipment used by astronauts to do their jobs; she was another one of the crew, struggling against an injury she would eventually succumb to.

Columbia as he described her was not a machine with 2.5 million parts - she was a being, with a heart, a soul, and a desire to escort her occupants safely and comfortably on their shared mission.  The Space Shuttles are beloved members of a team of thousands, who dedicate their lives to the awesome feat of lifting humanity from the surface of the planet and bringing them safely back.  And like the human team members, each spaceship has her own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, failings, and triumphs - each has her own personality that is endearing to her friends, if baffling to outsiders.  Sounds a bit like you and me.

Crippen wasn't the only one to become attached to a mechanical thing.  If you talk to Steven Squyres about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, you'd think he was talking about his own children.  "Spirit is our firstborn. [...] Opportunity is not as quirky ... Spirit was always our 'problem child.'"  Many news articles about Spirit's recent demise read like eulogies for any human: "The cause of death appears to be hypothermia [...] Spirit lived a long, full and extremely productive life."  The rover had a face and a body and a perpetually curious pose that inspired many to imagine its soul.  An official eulogy for Spirit was given this month by John Callas, the manager of the Mars Exploration Project.  He described a lifetime of struggles for the rover, who toiled for our sake: "Spirit escaped the volcanic plains of Gusev Crater, mountaineer-ed up the Columbia Hills, survived three cold, dark Martian winters and two rover-killing dust storms, and surmounted debilitating hardware malfunctions.  But out of this adversity, she made the most striking scientific discoveries that have forever changed our understanding of the Red Planet."

John Callas said something else profound in the eulogy: "let's also remember that Spirit's great accomplishments did not come at the expense of some vanquished foe or by outscoring some opponent.  Spirit did this, we did this - to explore, to discover, to learn - for the benefit of all humankind.  In that respect, these rovers represent the highest aspiration of our species."

This brings me back to the Shuttles, and what we lose after Atlantis lands in a few hours.  The Shuttle fleet served us in many ways - it was a vital tool for constructing the International Space Station; it made science instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope possible; it was itself a platform for scientific research; it was even a vehicle of diplomacy.  Its use and development resulted in hundreds of spinoffs that we unwittingly take for granted.

The Shuttle's grace and capability also inspired an entire generation.  This was not our parents' lump of a space capsule, confining its crew in a single cramped compartment.  The best efforts of the previous decades brought forth geometric shapes that orbited the earth in uninspired stillness and landed in a tangle of parachutes to be fished out of the ocean or dragged off an icy field.  With the Orbiters we tamed complexity and created something to be proud of.  In addition to their unmatched capabilities as spacecraft, in each mission the Orbiter would put on a show as it performed graceful acrobatics in space and then landed on its feet, panting and steaming but ready to take the trip again.  The Shuttle fleet was a symbol of American ingenuity and creativity, and even as its missions started to seem mundane its form became familiar as what a spacecraft of the future might look like.

Though they were sometimes used as tools for military or diplomatic use, the Shuttles were at their core vehicles of science and exploration.  They too represented humanity's ideals and aspirations - they were built to help us understand our planet, our bodies, the cosmos, and our relationship with it.  With the Orbiters we mapped parts of the Earth that were previously unmappable; we launched telescopes and probes to explore our solar system and they universe beyond it; we demonstrated true human cooperation by assembling an International Space Station.  We did all this not as contestants in a race, but as people engaged in the responsible application of the technological and scientific resources of our country.  The Shuttles demonstrated to the world that we could do anything, but we chose to do good.

The Orbiters themselves were a bit needy.  Each one required an army of engineers, technicians, and specialists for maintenance, diagnosis, and repair before and after each flight.  With unique personalities came unique problems, and their vast complexity was sometimes aggravating and expensive.  Lack of understanding and respect for this complexity twice led to tragedy, but (as engineering disasters always do) each tragedy led to better understanding, further innovation, and safer vehicles.  But the loss of Columbia in 2003 was too much to bear for a country at war that was shrinking from risk and wary of open-ended investment, and though the Shuttles flew for years after a short period of introspection, political and social pressures at the time ultimately led to today's scheduled retirement of the fleet.

When Atlantis lands it will not be the end of human spaceflight, in America or anywhere else.  Several corporations in this country are creating spacecraft of their own to take satellites, cargo, and crews to Earth orbit.  NASA is tasked (perhaps unconvincingly) with creating a new crewed spacecraft for exploration.  Russia is maintaining its ability to launch cargo and crew, China has a budding human spaceflight program, and other countries are well on their way to achieving human spaceflight with their own craft.  As the American west was won, Earth orbit has ceased to be a frontier and is becoming a place of expansion, enterprise, and opportunity.

When the last Orbiter is retired an important and storied program will come to an end.  Thousands of people have dedicated their careers to the Shuttle program; they've watched it through tragedy and triumph, fault and accomplishment; they have developed intense feelings and connections to co-workers, communities, and the vehicles under their care.  Many will lose their jobs at a time when the country's economy is already struggling.  America will lose a decades-old symbol of pride and accomplishment that has not been surpassed (or even successfully imitated) by any other country.  But as heartbreaking as this is, all things must come to an end and we must accept that and move on.

That's what we're supposed to say, right?  There are even those who are glad to see the Shuttles go; people who feel that they kept us tethered to Earth orbit when we could have been exploring far beyond it.  But it's hard not to feel a little empty right now.  To dismiss the Shuttle program is to overlook decades of invention, accomplishment, and discovery.  We are losing our best and brightest stars - they will be relegated to dusty museums, reminders of past glory for our divided country.

Sometimes the story doesn't have a happy ending.  For those who worked to build, maintain, and operate the fleet, dear friends are being taken away before their time, and there is real pain that outsiders fail to understand or appreciate.  For those who have been inspired by the Shuttles, it is a profound loss because there is nothing so pure to replace it.  Now we are left waiting for our political class to unite around a plan for NASA that provides appropriate vision and adequate funding for a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle program, so that we may create, explore, and be inspired again.