Now that the party is over

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The twin sonic boom signature of the Space Shuttle as it became subsonic were heard at Cape Canaveral this morning for the last time. As the wheels touched the tarmac and the braking ‘shute streamed, an era in space exploration came to a premature end and the US handed over the baton to other nations. This is the forth time that the US has wavered in its commitment to space exploration.

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Having ignored the work of its own rocket pioneers, the US was galvanized into action in 1944 as the British shared intelligence on the German rocket and nuclear weapons programs. Although the full situation remained unknown until the surrender of Germany in 1945, the British and the Polish underground had been tracking these programs closely and collecting components from crashed rockets. This work enabled the British to greatly reduce the threat of V-1 flying bombs and V-2/A4 ballistic rockets that were fired at British cities from 1944 in an attempt to disrupt and postpone the Allied invasion of the European mainland. In parallel, British intelligence and special forces had worked with the Norwegian underground to disrupt the German heavy water program that was vital to their nuclear weapons development.

By 1944 the British had acquired sufficient intelligence to understand how close the Germans were to producing inter-continental ballistic missiles that could reach the US from Germany. There was also an appreciation of how close Germany was to building a first viable atomic bomb.

In 1945 Anglo American forces had overrun the German launch sites, research establishments and rocket factories. This enabled them to seize rockets and associated technology for removal to Britain and the US. Also recovered were drawings of the inter-continental missiles and data from the nuclear development program. Even today, some intelligence from the period has remained classified and it was only recently that more complete information on the nuclear program emerged as the German Government considered how to deal with radioactive wasted buried at the end of the war. The fact that this volume of waste had been hidden indicates that Germany was close to having the materials for the first atomic weapons.

US naivety in negotiations with Russia during WWII had given Russia a share of German territory to occupy and this involved the retreat of British and US forces from positions and territory that they had won in combat, handing it over to the USSR to plunder. This meant that the US was aware of the Russian race to acquire German scientists and technology from the rocket and nuclear programs.

Initially, the US was keen to fully use captured German scientists and materials but there was soon conflict in objectives. The German rocket pioneer von Braun and his people wanted to develop their rocket experience into space exploration and the US military was to impose some very strict limits on the range of German-designed rockets to be built in the US. This was the first US retreat from the opportunities of space exploration. In part this was a result of poor US intelligence that consistently under-rated the Russian threat in the late 1940s. It was believed that the Russians were still heavily dependent on aircraft to deliver bombs and that they were depending on spies to obtain information on US nuclear weapons. This ignored the information coming out of the USSR on Russian progress with its captive German scientists, including nuclear weapons original development.

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Sputnik I was the size of a beach ball

The US slumbered on until the USSR launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik on October 4 1957

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Explorer I was built to place smaller satellites in orbit

The US response was commendable, resulting in a crash program to launch Explorer I. Unfortunately, there were many launch failures, early US satellites were tiny, and the US was seen to be lagging far behind the USSR in space vehicle and weapons design.

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Gagarin during his tour of Western countries

US misery was compounded when Gagarin was launched into orbit as the first astronaut in April 12 1961.

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Mercury Spacecraft

Mercury was a very cramped one-man spacecraft

The US emergency response was commendable and the first Mercury orbit was executed in February 20 1962, following on from two sub-orbital flights.

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R-12 intermediate missiles did not have the range to hit targets in the US from Russian territory

October 1962 saw the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Russians decided to step up their rocket capability by basing R-12 missiles in Cuba. This was a further unexpected shock for the US and the world came to the brink of nuclear war until the Russians backed down. The two consequences were Russian efforts to build a strong blue water navy so that they would not be forced down by NATO naval power, and a belated US appreciation that control of space would give victory in any nuclear war and increased the chances of avoiding war if the West held the dominance in space.

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Gemini prepared for the Apollo flights by taking two-man crews into orbit to rehearse in-space rendezvous.

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Apollo CSM lunar orbit

The Apollo Command/Service module had to maneuver to link up with the Lunar Lander in Earth orbit. On return from the moon, the lander was jettisoned and the command module (the small cone at the tip of the Command/Service module separated to return to a landing at sea.

From Mercury, the US followed a consistent manned space program through the two-man Gemini spacecraft to the three-man Apollo spacecraft. There was a clear target to put a man on the moon and it was arguably the first time that the US had set itself a clear target for manned space flight, with a well defined initial plan to develop on to a manned flight to Mars.

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The Apollo program was terminated prematurely as US politicians lost interest in manned space flight, believing the Russian space threat defeated and the US citizens uninterested in space flight. Certainly the public was becoming bored by the time of the launch of Apollo 12 and only rekindled interest in Apollo 13 when disaster seemed probable. Millions around the world followed the saga as the Apollo crew and the team on the ground worked to come up with a solution that would get the crew back to Earth alive. The US again retreated from manned space flight.

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Skylab (SL-4)

The Skylab concept was based on building a space shuttle and using components form the Apollo program as the major elements in the space station

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NASA managed to win back from the threat of disbandment. The solution was to present the idea of a space station in Earth orbit. To achieve this, NASA said that it needed a re-usable space vehicle to carry construction workers and materials into orbit to build and staff the space station. Re-using surplus Apollo components for the main structure of the Skylab reduced costs but the Space Shuttle was a hideously complex and costly space vehicle that was never to achieve the expected levels of re-use.

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Able to carry up to eight astronauts and a significant cargo, the Shuttle made possible the construction of an International Space Station. The ability of astronauts to walk in space and bolt the components together could have been achieved with difficulties using small Apollo-style spacecraft. However, only the Shuttle allowed the ISS to reach a point where it could be maintained without the Shuttle.

Against the odds, the Space Shuttle has been very successful with a low mortality rate, only one Shuttle being lost during launch and a second Shuttle being lost on re-entry after completing a successful mission in space, against 135 launches. Compared to early manned flight, this is a very high safety record.

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STS-51-L was the first Shuttle disaster when a booster failure during launch destroyed the Shuttle Challenger and her crew on January 28, 1986

The first fatal flight came very close to ending NASA’s manned space program. Politicians were quick to use the disaster to remove funding and ban further space flights. Only NASA determination was able to recover and restart the Shuttle missions.

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STS-107 was the second Shuttle disaster when the Shuttle Columbia broke up in the air over Texas after re-entry

The second tragedy had less impact on the program and was ascribed to missing heat tiles as a result of lighting strike before lift off, leading to overheating in the wing structure and disintegration.

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The last Shuttle landing ends the ability of NASA to launch astronauts and makes the US manned space program entirely dependent on Russian spacecraft to send a much smaller number of astronauts to the ISS

The ending of the Shuttle program at STS-135 was perhaps inevitable, given the age of the spacecraft and the cost of operations at a time when the US economy is in deep trouble. The failure pre-dates this situation because the US failure to produce a successor to the Space Shuttle is the real reason for the effective ending of the manned space program beyond a very modest token effort of hitching a ride on some Russian launches. However, the failure is even deeper than that because the Shuttle became an excuse to retain some limited form of manned space flight after the premature ending of the Apollo program. Although the Shuttle program has been a great operational success in a limited mission environment, and the ISS has been an operational and political success in co-operation between nations, manned space flight has been limited to very near space not far beyond Earth atmosphere. NASA has been more successful in its robot space exploration where its successes have received little public exposure because robot exploration does not have the attention grabbing capacity of a new manned space spectacular. It could be argued that this is a failure of NASA publicity, but there are always limitations to PR and generating interest in something that is not involving for humans is very difficult.

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The Chinese spacecraft follow the Russian designs at least outwardly. Developing from this base could be carried out rapidly given the political will and there is every indication that China is developing this will to replace the US as the premier super power

In the post-Shuttle era, it remains to be seen if the US will bounce back again. The situation now is very different from the situation at previous retreats from space. Previously, US manufacturing capabilities were superior to those of the dying USSR and there were no real direct competitors for manned space flight. Today, Russia has a reborn space industry and China, India, Japan and Europe have growing capabilities. With the exception of China, these growing capabilities have been aided by the ISS and US support for the space station. During the next three years, China may begin building its own space station and other space capable countries will be expanding their abilities, partly by taking up the slack left by the ending of the Shuttle program.

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The ISS has grown over the years on the back of Shuttle operations. Within the next few years it may be joined in orbit by several national space stations to provide the bases from which to launch missions to colonize the Moon

The danger for the US is that it may find other countries dominating space and blocking a bounce back in the future. It may also find that China poses an even greater military and political threat from space than the USSR ever did.

The difficulty that faces commercial space flight is lack of a credible return on investment unless early activity is funded by a government. There is no question that the US aerospace and defence industry is capable of technically building a manned space exploration program and starting to find ways to exploit manned space flight. Russia is already looking at building colonies on the Moon and on Mars to extract raw materials that are becoming difficult to obtain on Earth. That approach requires government funding for years and maybe decades to develop the technology to make materials extraction and freighting to Earth commercially viable. Recently some US politicians have excused the crude budget cuts to the NASA budgets by claiming that space travel is now at the point where it will develop commercially, citing the history of manned flight. This ignores the fact that manned flight started commercially and developed very slowly until governments saw military potential. The first great development then came during World War One as aircraft were developed as weapons systems. A brief period of slow growth followed, only to dramatically increase in the preparations for and execution of a second global conflict. Growth might then have fallen off, had it not been for the Cold War which also gave birth to space flight. Commercial exploitation of aircraft has come from building on the investment of governments at times when some very clear returns could be seen on corporate investment

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