Monday, July 13, 2009

The Shuttle Nears The End

NASA is about to make a fifth attempt to get the space shuttle Endeavour off the ground on its latest mission to the International Space Station. It's been delayed by a combination of technical troubles and bad weather. The mission is one of the longest and most complex in the history of the shuttle programme, and when it finally links up with the ISS a record will be set for the most amount of people in orbit at one time. But behind NASA's positive spin, it knows the shuttle is about to go out of service, and it's about to fall behind in the modern space race.

There will be seven more shuttle missions after this one, then the ageing fleet will be retired. The shuttles will eventually be replaced by the planned Orion craft, but probably not until 2015 at the earliest. In the meantime, NASA is going to have to rely on its once great rival, the Russian space programme, to keep the ISS going. It won't be the first time this has happened either. After the Columbia disaster of 2003, when the shuttle fleet was grounded, it was Russian Soyuz craft that carried people and parts to and from the ISS. After the last shuttle flies for the last time, it'll again be the veteran Soyuz that takes the strain, although Russia is planning a replacement that should come into service before NASA's Orion.

There's a big irony in all this. This is the month that the 40th anniversary of NASA's greatest victory over the Soviet Union, when it successfully landed men on the moon, is being marked. But now NASA is so hamstrung by a relative lack of money and political will, it's forced to rely on the Russians and the rest for the technology and cash to get the job done in space. This doesn't necessarily matter to anyone other than the Americans, it is the International Space Station after all, and it's right that it's an international effort. But the fact that for much of its working life the station will not be serviced by NASA craft proves that the Americans no longer own space in the way they once did.


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