The shuttle has landed for the last time. What now? And what of 30 years of shuttle flights?
The space shuttle was an engineering marvel for its time, but one has to wonder in retrospect whether its purpose, its reason for being, was ever thoroughly thought through. The shuttle was touted as a "space truck," an orbiting vehicle that would make manned space flight affordable, reliable and frequent. On all three of those criteria, the shuttle flopped. It turned out to be many times more costly than NASA had imagined; it was plagued by glitches and fatal flaws; and it was never able to come close to the optimistic turn-around time NASA had promised. Instead of multiple launches per month, the best the shuttle could do was a launch every few months.
The bigger problem with the shuttle was its purpose. If it was intended only for placing satellites in low earth orbit, it was an expensive and dangerous waste. Traditional rockets could do that job, as they had for decades, much more cheaply. The shuttle made sense only as a service vehicle for the International Space Station. Over its 30 years, the shuttle made multiple trips to the space station to haul up components and astronauts to live there. Space walks were necessary to put all the parts of the ISS together, and NASA solved the many engineering problems involved in zero-gravity construction work. The space station still orbits, but the shuttle will no longer service it.
The space station has been the focus of U.S. space flight throughout the shuttle era. While much scientific research has been conducted there, it has not advanced space exploration. Arguably, the Hubble Telescope (sent into orbit and repaired by shuttle crews) has done more for scientific knowledge than the space station.
Now NASA is at a turning point: What do we do now? If we aim for a return to the moon or a far more ambitious trip to Mars, the space station is of no help. Maintaining the ISS will be a costly burden that will deplete funds that could go to the next interplanetary exploration. Imagine where NASA might be if Congress had shot down the space station proposal and directed all of that money toward a Mars mission or permanent moon base.
With Congress' focus on the national debt and annual budget deficit, NASA will hard pressed to find the federal funding needed for any long-range, ambitious projects. Even keeping the hulking ISS in orbit might be more than a tighter federal budget can support.