Last flight of the space shuttle

In one context, the Space Shuttle has been a complete failure. It has had two spectacular and horrific failures. It costs 10x more per launch than it 'should' have. It has completely lost the satellite launch market and was never commercially viable, and only briefly viable for the interests of national security.

In another context, it has been an amazing achievement. We build a reusable space plane. Come on, that's pretty damn cool. We built a plane which goes into space, stays up there for weeks at a time, and then comes back and lands on a runway. Getting into space is goddamn hard. Operating in space safely is harder still. Space is less forgiving than your mother in law, harder than a monk at a strip club, and more expensive than keeping peace in the middle east. Was the Space Shuttle ever really great at what it did? Not really. But in the big picture, we still built a goddamn space plane.

And it is now in space for the last time. It is the end of an era, but I think, the beginning of a much more interesting one.

The last time that people really cared about space was 40 years ago. Even nearing the end of the Apollo missions, the nation started to tune out, to the point that I have gone and visited Apollo 19, which lies on its side at the Houston Space Center, because even though the amazing vehicle was already built, it was deemed not worth the cost of actually running the mission.

Now, we are reaching the point where space will become economically viable for private operators. SpaceX with their new contracts with NASA is leading the charge, but little guys flying just above the atmosphere such as Virgin Galactic will also prove that there is money to be made in space. And profits are what really drive exploration.

Why did the US colonists always move west? They wanted more land, so they could make their money. Eventually, they wanted the fertile soil of Oregon, or the gold of California and Alaska. They knew how to get there in part because of Lewis and Clark, whose main objective was to figure out the animal and mineral worth of the Mississippi river basin and the lands to the west. Profits drive exploration, and they are what will drive our move into space.

So pour a beer for the Space Shuttle, but celebrate this new era we are moving into.

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