Mothballing the Future

Space Shuttle Discovery

Discovery heads into a possibly premature retirement

“He had made, utterly without incident and in little more than one day, the incredible journey of which men had dreamed for two thousand years. After a normal, routine flight, he had landed on the Moon.” Dr Heywood Floyd arrives at Clavius Base on-board the Aries 1B lunar carrier. From 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke.

Odyssey has spoken before about the strange retrograde current that seems to be pulling at the history of spaceflight, tugging seminal events back towards their various starting points (See Odyssey 10, December 2011: The Ghost of Christmas Past). Few images could have reinforced this impression more than the sight in this week’s news media of Space Shuttle Discovery on its last Earth-bound flight, with the monuments along the National Mall in Washington DC forming a suitably historic background for this valedictory mission. It’s ironic that Discovery’s final flight path should take it over Washington, where politicians (ever the enemies of visionary thinking) made the fiscal decisions which spelt the end of this phase in America’s space programme. Onlookers gazing up at Discovery might have been forgiven for thinking they were witnessing a funeral cortege, and in a way they were. The Space Shuttle is dead, long live…well, what exactly?

Space Shuttle DiscoverySuch images make it impossible to escape the impression that we are witnessing history in reverse, with the Shuttle returning along its own timeline as it goes into both retirement and the realm of myth. The images of the Shuttle riding on the back of a modified Boeing 747, as it flew over the American capitol, are undeniably reminiscent of the test flights which took place back in the late 1970s, occasions when the Orbiter needed a lift from a far less glamorous machine to get airborne. It’s both disappointing and sad to see these wonderful spacecraft turned into museum pieces, to see the future mothballed. We are told that successors to the Shuttle  are on their way but some of these projects are aimed at tourism, while others are designed to fulfil the requirements for crew transfers and logistical support, rather than creating platforms on which more ambitious engineering projects can be undertaken.

It could be argued that America lost interest in the future as long ago as 1970, the year in which re-runs of I Love Lucy were somehow more important to the nation’s viewing public that their own countrymen’s efforts to reach another world. Only when the lives of the Apollo 13 crew hung in the balance did America tune back into reality; and it tuned out quickly enough thereafter, channel-hopping back into a less demanding universe. Perhaps that’s the way forward with PR for the International Space Station (ISS): turn the crew’s everyday activities into a reality TV show, with a different member of the crew voted off each week until only one remains, a sole survivor desperately trying to keep the space station going until a relief mission arrives. “Dermot, I’ve made my decision: the astronaut I’m sending back to Earth is….”

This week we celebrated the Apollo 16 mission with an evening lecture at the BIS. Arguably, we should have been celebrating the 116th mission in the Apollo programme, the latest mission to a permanently manned Moon Base. Such a station, however modest in design, should have been the true legacy of Apollo, providing a stepping stone to other planets and their satellites. As Odyssey contended in one of its earliest essays “Skylab … showed the way by building a space station out of Apollo components, the same kind of components that could have been used to build a base on the Moon.” (Spaceflight, Volume 52: November 2010: How Giving Up on Skylab Cost the Earth).

Panam Orion

The Space Shuttle’s fictional counterpart in 2001: A Space Odyssey

When Heywood Floyd (surely Arthur C. Clarke himself in literary disguise) journeyed to the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a space shuttle was just one link in a chain of vehicles that got Floyd all the way to Clavius Base. We have yet to build such an outpost and without the Shuttle (or its equivalent) it’s unlikely that we will, certainly not for generations to come. And no Moon Base means no base on Mars either.   If TMA 1  – the mysterious monolith that catapulted Dave Bowman who-knows-where at the end of the movie – was uncovered on the Moon today we’d have no way of getting there to investigate, short of retrieving the Shuttle fleet from the various museums which now – or soon will – house them. And raiding the past is no way in which to reclaim the future.

It is not yet a race against time to save the ISS, which can still be serviced by Russian spacecraft, by Apollo-era vehicles which, in the end, proved more reliable than the mightier Shuttle. The crew of the ISS hasn’t been marooned by the loss of Discovery and her sister ships; but their connection with the Earth is undeniably more tenuous.   Former NASA Administrator Professor Mike Griffin was right when he observed: “We’ve gotten ourselves into a rather stupid situation of ending Shuttle flights without a clear path to a replacement and without a sense of the long-range future of the programme. It’s really rather deplorable.” In the same interview with the BBC (see: Griffin went on to add:  “Very few investments on the part of society yield as much impact as an investment in human spaceflight. Our capability to operate on the frontier – in fact to define that frontier – shapes the game in ways that rebound to our advantage in the future.” All of which begs the question: has America lost its interest in that frontier; or worse still, its nerve to explore it?

The brooding shape of Skylon looms over British hopes, like the black heraldic shield of a re-emergent Plantagenet, a Round Table of engineers and visionaries determined to fulfil the heritage of Black Arrow and Blue Streak. But Skylon’s designers and champions, and more importantly its financial backers, need to hurry while the path to the future remains open. If the retro-grade current grows any stronger, then that route may one day become as inaccessible as the higher dimensions of space-time that are supposedly rolled-up and locked away in the baffling realm of quantum physics.

USS Enterprise

Fact and fiction overlap as the crew of the USS Enterprise watch the roll-out of the very first Space Shuttle

For the time being, the immediate future belongs to SF writers who can conjure credible scenarios for the exploration of orbital space and journeys to our companion worlds in the solar system; writers such as Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, both members of the BIS. Such imaginary voyages represent a staging post for Mankind’s space-faring ambitions while, once again, we wait for reality to catch up with imagination.

Mark Stewart, FBIS

For more on Discovery’s final venture into space see Odyssey 3 (May 2011).

For more on Stephen Baxter see Odyssey 2 (April 2011), Odyssey 7 (September 2011) and Odyssey 8 (October 2011).

Alastair Reynolds is interviewed in Odyssey 15 (May 2012) due out next week.

A full archive of all Odyssey past issues is available in the Members’ Downloads section of the BIS website at:


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