Even watching it in the form of a choppy webcast couldn't detract from the majesty of it. In the minutes between the separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters and External Fuel Tank, the feed carried an unearthly silence; Atlantis, though soaring orbitward at thousands of miles per hour, seemed frozen - enough so that until Houston started talking, I was worried I had lost my connection to NASA TV.
Atlantis is en route to a rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday. Launch Pad 39A is empty now, and it will remain that way for some time to come. No shuttle will ever again sit on the pad at Cape Canaveral. It begs the question - where are we going? What are we going to do now? Maintaining the space program was difficult enough in a time of plenty like the 1990s, when there were no endless wars for the United States to pay for. In a world where the United States remains mired in recession after nearly four years of misery, when the entire global financial system feels as stable as a house on a pogo stick, what have we to do next? I've been noticing quite a few people expressing uncertainty, wondering if this is the end of the road for manned spaceflight.
A view of Atlantis from the External Fuel Tank during the ascent to orbit, after SRB separation. Frame courtesy NASA TV.
We used to know where we were going - up until last year, when President Obama cancelled the Constellation program out from under us. For the first time in years, perhaps decades, NASA had a comprehensive, concrete plan for the future that involved something greater than flights to the International Space Station - and we couldn't afford it. Of course not. We can afford bailouts to parasite corporations demand we make restitution for their losses so that they can keep all the profits if good times come again, but we couldn't afford this.
But this isn't the end of the road. There's still, thankfully, the International Space Station to consider - something to focus our attention on. There's the burgeoning private space sector; ten years ago SpaceX didn't exist, and ten years from now it may well be sending people into space on top if its own rockets. There's Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace - and there's the Chinese space program, with its plan to have the space station Tiangong complete and in orbit for 2020.
Sure, these estimates may change, and some may never get off the ground at all. But we have to remember that nothing is ever a sure thing, and not even the Space Shuttle itself was a sure thing once; our view of it is distorted by the scope of the mostly-successful thirty-year program.
"If it survives the political onslaught," Jerry Pournelle wrote in the April 1977 issue of Galaxy, "the Shuttle will put 65,000 pounds in near-Earth orbit for a cost of between $10 and $20 million per mission... at the moment the turn-around time from re-entry to next mission is planned at 160 hours; but a great deal of that is checkout and elaborate tests, and if the ships fly as well as we think they will, it can be cut."
The Space Shuttle didn't live up to the optimistic forecasts of launch costs that you'll find in 1970s sources - if it had, there would likely be a real orbital infrastructure by now, not just the ISS - but it brought space to a new generation - my generation, a generation that grew up always knowing that spaceflight was something that was done, which was done regularly, and which was a normal part of the world. Today, that world feels as if it's missing something.
"The Shuttle's always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do," Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson in the final minutes before launch this morning. He's right, because the Shuttle is about something greater. It's something that isn't just about profit. Something that isn't just about the everyday. Something that is about going beyond... about the future.