Sunday, July 24, 2011


In the 1970s, two unique craft took to the skies. The SuperSonic Transport, called Concorde, and the Shuttle Transport System, called the Space Shuttle.

SST and STS.

Each is regarded as the pinnacle of engineering in its respective field. Both are now out of service. With their retirements, human spaceflight and air travel have technologically receded.

Each program had serious shortcomings. Complexity when simplicity will do is never desirable. Putting humans at risk in space to do a job that robots can do perfectly well is not good policy. A small, high maintenance aircraft that costs its passengers disproportionately more to fly than the time it saves is not going to be economically viable.

It doesn't matter. They were halos of a sort, vivid testimony to how far humanity has come. Imperfect halos, to be sure, as their occasional disasters and frequent maintenance issues made clear how much further we have to go. But halos none the less. Cro-Magnon wasn't going to get anything into space or faster than the speed of sound one time, let alone many times. We are each of us lucky to be alive during a time when we have the capability of doing such things.

With their retirement, we've lost a bit of the halo: America without a manned space flight program, humanity having mothballed its penultimate engineering accomplishments. We still do amazing things - the International Space Station and Boeing's Dreamliner are incredible feats of engineering in their own right. But they're not the STS and the SST.

As an adult, it's hard to come to grips with this moment of devolution in applied physics. It's harder still to explain it to a 9 year old, especially when some of the drivers for this particular devolution are human shortcomings of a different sort, such as profligate spending and inconsistent policies. But there it is.

We had the opportunity to watch Atlantis launch from the Kennedy Space Center to start the journey of STS-135. I hope my daughter is at the KSC to see the launch of the next generation of manned space exploration, whenever that is, to see humanity restore this particular halo.