Dear Science,

With the last shuttle flight off and soon to be done, are you going to miss the space shuttle program? Is this the end of NASA?

Sad Grounded Nerd

Science can vaguely remember, in the fog of his youngest memories, the launching of the first space shuttle. Even more clear are the memories of the Challenger disaster. Another memory comes from visiting the Kennedy Space Center and seeing the shuttle slowly roll out to its launch pad. Science is wistful about the shuttle, but not all that sad about it going away.

The space shuttle, at its best, offered dubious value for the scientific data generated. The same goes for the (still flying) International Space Station. Both projects have their positives—stretching technology to accomplish truly difficult tasks, and providing some real moments of exploration and adventure. But as machines for generating scientific data—data that tell us more about our world, ourselves, and our universe—they're both busts.

If Science were asked to pick the finest scientific moment of the shuttle, it would have to be the launching, and subsequent servicing, of the Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle brought a revolutionary new instrument into orbit and kept it functioning. Among a vast list of discoveries, the Hubble has located extrasolar planets and peered into the earliest moments of our universe.

The investigation of the Challenger disaster was another strong moment for Science and the shuttle. Led by (the kickass American physicist) Richard Feynman, this investigation carefully teased apart the chain of events leading to the disaster. We learned a bit about how to run large, complicated projects more safely.

The end of the shuttle is by no means the end of NASA. The data generated by NASA's unmanned programs have mattered much more than the manned programs. The Pioneer space probes have left our solar system—the first physical objects made by humankind to do so. The Voyager probes (also still operating after nearly four decades) gave us our first detailed look at the outer planets of our solar system—beautiful images along with hard data that we continue to use today. These two are beyond our solar system and helping us understand interstellar space. The Mars rovers have given us amazing glimpses into the history and death (and maybe life) of the red planet. The earth observation satellites tell us about climate change, our oceans, and how land use is changing around the globe. Though inherently less sexy than the space shuttle, these little nonliving objects tell us so much. Funding and nurturing these and similar projects is what matters to Science and for science—not the shuttle.

Robotically Yours,


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