American leadership in human spaceflight is dead. Long live American leadership in human spaceflight.
Just as America ended the successful and celebrated Apollo program to blaze a different trail, now we are ending the space shuttle program to follow a different, more flexible path. Ending Apollo didn’t end American leadership in human spaceflight and ending the space shuttle program won’t end it either.
This week, Atlantis is scheduled to make the last ever liftoff of the space shuttle program. It is both joyful to see such an expensive, unsafe program end and tragic to see such an accomplished, ground-breaking program end.
There can be no doubt that the space shuttle program made the reusability of space vehicles a reality, brought dozens of crew and tons of cargo into space, and facilitated our space science goals for decades. These tremendous vehicles have served as an inspiration to countless Americans, and people around the globe.
But there is also no doubt that these vehicles fell far short of what we were initially promised: inexpensive, reliable transportation into space with 50 launches every year. What we actually received was fewer than 50 launches every decade from a technological dead end oftentimes grounded for years at a time due to technical problems. It killed 14 brave men and women and it cost about $1 billion per flight.