Tuesday, June 1, 2010

End of the Shuttle Era

So Atlantis has flown for the last time and very soon the shuttle program will be wound up after some 30 years. I recall the first flight of the shuttle Columbia and its return when I was a graduate student in the US -- it marked the beginning of an era of deploying re-usable spacecraft for various purposes. And while it lacked the excitement of the moon landing, it was the newest endeavour in space.

Did the shuttle program achieve any spectacular? As far as the International Space Station (ISS) goes, I am afraid very little. Right from the start it was never quite clear what the ISS was supposed to achieve except to keep a few humans in a weightless environment as a test for future space travel. The so-called experiments carried out in the ISS were mostly juvenile, and in fact a large number of them were designed by high school students -- for example germinating seeds in a gravity free environment and stuff of that sort.

To my mind, presumably because I am a physicist, the greatest achievement of the shuttle was the launch of the Hubble space telescope and the subsequent trips it made, first to replace a defective mirror and thereafter to fix various parts and extend Hubble's life beyond the expected span. Hubble has allowed astronomers to see deeper into space (and thereby further back in time) than would be possible by even the largest terrestrial telescope, and has been of immeasurable value to the physics/astrophysics community. Hubble is an optical telescope and it was followed by gamma ray and X ray space telescopes which have also very valuable, though these were not launched by the shuttle.

The space shuttle had another minor achievement, (minor in the larger arena of achievement) though it was of immense value to India. The first of the Indian communication satellites, INSAT 1B was launched in the early eighties by one of the earlier shuttle missions (Challenger) and was the first step in the revolution that finally swept TV broadcast and telecommunication in India. (INSAT 1A launched earlier barely lasted a year and had to be abandoned).

Which brings me to a related topic -- the manned exploration of space. The sight of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing along on the moon surface has a certain indefinable charm and excitement that is impossible to associate with a moon rover trundling over the moon surface. However, I think in the long run, the Russians had the right idea. Human beings are delicate and fragile creatures. They require an enormous amount of fail-safe technology to keep them alive and in good health during the long times that would be involved even to travel to Mars, let alone further along the solar system and beyond. A robot would do it at a tiny fraction of the cost, and not be any less effective, other than the romanticism of human space travel.

Which is why it is particularly troubling to see both China and India entering into a race for a manned mission into space as well as a mission to the moon, when most of the moon's surface has already been mapped. It is the somewhat infantile 'me too' factor which drives both these countries towards this absurd quest, wasting resources that could well be funnelled into more fruitful ventures, even within the space program. The indigenous launch vehicle program of ISRO has been very successful and it would be more useful to develop that than to launch technologically more advanced and cheaper satellites or even exploratory robots. But a manned space program is hardly the kind of venture that countries like China and India should be getting into.


L said...

I agree. Specially when India wants to conduct space exploration for scientific purposes, whoever heard of scientific experiments being done once in every country? The resources could be spent for far better purposes.

AmOK said...

Manned flights capture the imagination. This captures the interest and, captures the rupees. There are real dividends, now, on earth as it is in the heavens and brings them this day their daily bread. Unmanned? None of those things. How do you change this equation?

Anant said...

You say:
...But a manned space program is hardly the kind of venture that countries like China and India should be getting into.

Well said!

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vbalki said...

In spite of all the "final frontier" stuff about manned space flights, any rational thinking about space exploration leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is best left to robots and smart machines. Manned spsce flight is patently an absurdity. That's why India is busy getting into it, at all costs. Tom Lehrer sang, of Werner von Braun, "Venn the rockets go up, who cares vhere zey come down?". In our case it's "When padma bhushans and vibhushans are at stake (for the top guns of ISRO), who cares how futile the exercise is?"