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The Shuttle Was a Dud But Space Is Still Our Destiny

NASA failed to deliver its primary goal: cheap human space travel. Next time we need to go farther and learn a lot more.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed back on earth Thursday, bringing an era to an end. For the first time in 30 years, NASA has no program for human space travel. While many are mourning this loss, the end of the space-shuttle program provides an opportunity to rethink space exploration, and to cut losses from a failed program that has been a colossal waste of resources, time and creative energy.

The space-shuttle program failed to live up to its primary goal of providing relatively cheap and efficient human space travel. There is good reason for this.

As the engineers made clear to the physicist Richard Feynman when he was investigating the cause of the Challenger explosion in 1986, human space travel is risky. While NASA managers had estimated the odds of a shuttle disaster as microscopic, engineers had estimated the loss rate at about one in 100 flights, which is close to the actual loss rate of two shuttles in 135 flights.

Not only has the shuttle program been costly—some $5 billion yearly over the past decade—it has been boring. A generation that grew up with Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" had hoped that by the dawn of the new millennium we would be regularly vacationing in space, and routinely sending astronauts to boldly go where no man or woman had gone before.

Instead we were treated to regular images of the shuttle visiting a $100 billion space-station boondoggle orbiting no farther from Earth than Washington is to New York. No one except a billionaire or two has ever vacationed in space, and their "hotel" was a cramped, stuffy and at times smelly, white elephant.
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