It will be the end of an era on Thursday with the landing of the Atlantis – the end of the final mission of the space shuttle program.
The first space shuttle flight took place on April 12, 1981 – just over 30 years ago.
The shuttle was envisaged as a reusable vehicle that would significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight. Unfortunately, it did not live up to that initial premise.
Instead, it ended up costing significantly more than the expendable launchers it was designed to replace.
Still, it is a beautiful piece of technology and for certain missions, such as returning payloads from orbit to Earth, it still cannot be beaten.
With the cancellation of the Constellation Program last fall, what will replace the shuttle is not clear. When that replacement will be available appears to be at least several years away. In the meantime, the American space program will be reliant on the Russian Soyuz and American privately owned commercial rockets.
The people who are alive today really only have two missions in life. The first is to ensure that our planet Earth remains a viable place that can support human civilization for the foreseeable future. The second is to develop self-sustaining advanced life-forms in Space in preparation for the inevitable day (hopefully many thousands of years in the future) when life on Earth no longer becomes possible.
Everything else that we normally worry about day-to-day, such as how our car compares with our neighbor’s, is irrelevant in the final analysis.
The end of the space shuttle program should not signal the end of humankind’s exploration of Space, but only a change in how we approach the problem.
Canada has been a secondary but important player in the space exploration field for many years. Canadian astronauts have taken part in many missions and the Canadarm remote manipulator system has been a vital piece of equipment on the shuttles and the International Space Station.
Canadians should continue to search for niches of space technology that we can develop as our contribution to this important endeavor.