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Endeavour’s Night Landing
Sets Shuttles’ Final Mission

As the Shuttle Endeavour touched down in Florida today, NASA’s 30-year space program got a bit closer to a conclusion. After 16 days, the shuttle’s mission ended in no different fashion than all her previous ones: flawlessly.
It’s a fitting finale for a storied shuttle, which delivered the first and now the last pieces of equipment for the assembling of the now completed International Space Station, the 11-year multinational collaboration which is expected to remain a space-based scientific laboratory for at least another decade.
Among this mission’s highlights was the installation of a $2 billion, 15,000 pound cosmic ray detector, and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). Before heading back to earth on their last flight on the shuttle, the five astronauts led by Cmdr. Mark Kelly also left at the station a handful of spare parts, including two S-band communications antennas and a high-pressure gas tank.
Endeavour’s sister, Atlantis, has already been moved to a launching pad for the program‘s final flight, scheduled for July 8. After that, the future of the near-space exploration by NASA is all but cloudy.
The giant Russian-made Soyuz rocket will remain servicing the ISS, while private companies are hard at work building new vehicles for short space trips. So far, none of them, though, is projected to conduct scientific experiments aloft, and their primary focus will be the high-end space tourism market, if there will ever be one.
NASA was forced to put all plans to build a replacement vehicle fleet on hold, due to budget constrains and the general feeling in Washington that the agency is no longer up to the task of carrying Americans to space on a regular basis. There are also questions about the practicality of NASA’s scientific experiments, and ultimately, whether we should risk sending humans to space, instead of investing more on combining robotics with artificial intelligence for unmanned missions.
Space travel, even for short periods of time as the Shuttle Program was designed to accomplish, is and will always be extremely hazardous to humans. The loss of the Challenger and the Columbia brought the issue too close home for comfort. At the same time, the costs of building and maintaining a fleet of spaceships has proven to be, well, astronomical, way out of scale with the perceived benefits it may eventually bring to society.
It all depends on perspective, of course, or who you’re talking to. Despite a record government deficit, unemployment and low industrial productivity, the issue of cost is rarely mentioned when it comes to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars to support the U.S.’s defense strategy, even though that the current three-way wars the U.S. is involved in all lack clarity of goals and transparency of purpose – just the kind of shortcomings the U.S.’s space strategy is often accused of.
The parallel with the war efforts is appropriate, since the space program was, from the get go, deeply rooted in the context of achieving global military hegemony. Before ballistic rockets were capable of putting a man on the moon, which they did 50 years ago, they were already ready to deliver multiple nuclear war heads to the heart of the U.S.’s enemies of the time, mainly the Soviet Union, China and all the rest, some thousands of miles away.
Perhaps, the end of the Cold War, which forced a redesigning of the U.S.’s defense priorities and allocation of funds for weaponry development, also wound up being a restrictive factor for its space program. But while the Pentagon quickly regrouped and found the appropriate muscle to assure an almost unlimited and continuous access to cash for its programs, based on national security and other, more contemporary fears, NASA and its poorly politically-inclined management had a harder time selling its worth to Congress.
Its very likely that even before the Endeavour is delivered to its final resting place, to be displayed at the California Science Center in LA from 2013 on, NASA’s budget will have shrunk even further, crippling for good its ability to shelter and nurture innovative projects that could eventually lead us back to orbit the way the shuttles did. One can only imagine the somber mood the agency’s thousands of rank and file space workers are now, while clearing their lockers and planning their next move.
But one never really knows. Even though the U.S.’s space program, as the former USSR’s and even China’s current efforts, may have been boosted by military strategic needs and pre-fabricated defense fears, the dream of flying to the stars was never and will never be conditioned by such mentality. It was there before the military hawks awoke to its potential, and it’ll be there way after they all ran out of ammunition.
After landing, the Endeavour, named after the 18th century British Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, will still have one last ground mission to accomplish, before being fully decommissioned: it’ll stand guard as a lifeboat while Atlantis is aloft, in case of an emergency. No one expects that to happen, of course, but in any case, one thing is for sure: however way it may be needed, it will perform its task brilliantly, judging by its spotless record. Welcome back, little sister.

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