Thursday, February 24, 2011

Secret Shuttle

While watching the live broadcast of STS-133's launch today, I can't help but feel an odd mix of excitement and apprehension about what happens next. STS-135 will be the last and final shuttle mission, and it may even end up being scrapped in favor of closing the program down after STS-134.

And then what?

One would be forgiven for having the same sinking feeling that we're about enter another long "dead zone" for manned space exploration, just as when Richard Nixon inexplicably and without warning put an abrupt halt to one of his administration's greatest successes - the Apollo manned moon missions. What did Nixon know that we dont?

If you, like me, were a space nerd growing up, you probably felt cheated by the Space Shuttle when they finally got around to rolling it out. The 1970s began with us making repeated trips to the moon in a flimsy little lunar module, yet the decade ended with us staying in Earth's orbit in a huge, bulky, clunky-looking "space plane" that couldn't even get off the ground without the help of a rocket and was in constant danger of exploding if any of its super-thick tiles were comprised. What the heck is wrong this picture?, we asked ourselves. What do they know that we dont?

(We geeky kids all campaigned and fought so hard to get NASA to name the first shuttle named Enterprise after our beloved Star Trek ship, only to subsequently be told that this would only be a prototype and never actually go to space. D'oh!)

Early on in the Space Shuttle's career, it became evident that something had happened somewhere in between the age of Grissom and the age of Crippen; the space program was, now more than ever, firmly in the hands of the military.

STS-4 was the first to carry a classified Pentagon payload. supposedly it was admitted later that the secret cargo was a pair of missile-launch detection systems, and supposedly the attempt to place them into orbit failed.

The 15th shuttle mission, STS-51-C, was the first to be completely dedicated to a secret mission for the Department of Defense. The details are still largely classified, but one alleged story leaked to Aviation Week is that one of the purposes of the mission was to launch an ELINT spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

More top-secret missions followed in quick succession: STS-51-J, STS-27, STS-28, STS-33, STS-36, and STS-38. And then something strange happened. After STS-53, the CIA/DoD stopped commandeering shuttle flights for classified national security purposes. Whatever it was they had been doing, had they had enough and didn't need any further surreptitious skulking in space? That hardly seems like them. But from 1992 on, the Pentagon seemingly had no further need for the Space Shuttle's services. And I asked myself once again, what do they know that we don't?

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the US would return to the moon by 2018. Many scoffed, but by that year's end, congress approved the start-up funds for Bush's moon plan.

On December 4, 2006, NASA announced that they were planning a permanent human colony on the moon, to be fully operational before the year 2020.

On September 28, 2007, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin looked even further ahead, stating that the moon base would then provide a leap-frog platform to send a manned expedition to Mars by 2037.

But on February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama ordered NASA to take a hard about-face, and scrapped all these plans. This drew much anger from NASA officials who have spent years and millions of dollars working on the moon base, and the level of animosity between the President and NASA is extremely high at this moment.

After decades of conversative opposition to further moon landings, we finally had both Republicans and Democrats in agreement about the way to proceed, and now this. Why would President Obama do this? He stated that it is his belief that NASA should direct its focus on more long-range deep-space matters, with telescopes and unmanned probes.

And just one more time, I will ask the room out loud: what does he know that we don't?


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