If you're in early middle age like me, you can probably remember NASA and the government making a huge deal over abandoning "Wasteful" rockets like the Saturn V in favor of a more "Economical" system they called "The Space Shuttle." Development started in 1973, and it was expected to go into service in 1978, but as *NO ONE* could manage to do anything right in the '70s, and as Jimmy Carter had some kind of pathological hatred of the space program, it got postponed to 1981.
That's eight years during which NASA's PR department was in overdrive, hyping the hell out of the Shuttle in a way that wouldn't be seen again until the year "Attack of the Clones" was released. And we totally bought it. I mean, what could go wrong? This was NASA, after all! They put man on the moon, even if they had to use leftover Nazis to do it. They gave us Skylab, and the Viking Probes. What could go wrong?
Everyone was very excited. My dad and I drove all the way to Florida for the first launch, and camped out on the Bananna River. He slept in the car, and I wandered around all night, talking to the other space campers, looking through their telescopes, listening to Queen*, and watching the all-night-long Science Fiction Movie Marathons on all the local channels (I remember watching "First Men In The Moon" and "Saga Of A Star World," but there were others. There was singing and dancing and campfires, the kind of things hippies like, but unlike the filthy stinking hippies, all of us knew how to bathe, and we were all pretty smart and pro-science. I remember all manner of amazingly involved scientific conversations with total strangers, I remember playing frisbee with some kids in the river at three in the morning, I remember everything. And then this happened:
I saw it with my own eyes. I was there, less than three miles away. It was a big as my pinkey as it lifted into the sky. We were elated. The whoops and roars and rebel yells (Florida after all) and applause was deafening. Some women were kneeling, praying that it would go off without a hitch. It was glorious. It felt like it was the dawn of a new age.
And it was, though of course we couldn't know how crappy that new age was at the time. We bought a bill of goods, like a bunch of suckers, and 29 years later, we're still paying for it.
Why? Because the Shuttle *isn't* economical: It costs twice as much per launch as the "Wasteful" Saturn V did, and its cargo capacity is so low that it costs six times as much per pound to put cargo in orbit than it did in Saturn days. But the PR had gone on for so long, and with such intensity, our feelings were so golden, that it took us a long time to realize the truth didn't match up to the hype. Five or six launches a year when they promised us fifty? Tooling around in orbit testing the effects of weightlessness on the manufacture of perfume when they promised us real research? Not even a crappy space station when they promised us colonization? Some of us had already begun to doubt when this happened:
And the dream was over. But sometimes you can't wake up, and it just keeps getting more and more nightmarish
And now, finally, they promise us that it's over, that it's waking up, but I'll believe it when I see it. The shuttle program has been NASA's equivalent of the Vietnam War, it just kept going and going and going, eating up more resources, with no clear goal in sight. It killed fourteen people, it's eaten up hundreds of billions of dollars, just on launch costs alone. Development and servicing are even more expensive. And like all demons, it refused to go down without a flight. It was intended to be replaced with a better system after ten or twelve years, yet here we are a generation later, still running that murderous slovenly profligate beast, and there are people in congress talking about extending the retirement date even as I type this. I'll believe it's dead when I see it in a museum alongside the fossils of other dinosaurs who were too big and stupid to live.
Make no mistake about it: The Space Shuttle *KILLED* space exploration.
*- The soundtrack to "Fash Gordon," over and over and over again. I don't know why.