Friday, 8 July 2011

The last shuttle Goodbye to all that

YOUR correspondent, as regular readers of The Economist will be aware, has never been much of a fan of the Space Shuttle. It was an expensive answer to a problem that did not need answering in the first place—namely how to put humans into orbit, at taxpayers’ expense, to do jobs which robots could manage more safely and cheaply.

Nevertheless, to witness the last ever shuttle launch, of Atlantis, on July 8th, was a poignant moment. A spacecraft—any spacecraft—is an awesome machine. And the shuttle is not just any spacecraft. For all its flaws, it was a bold idea: to replace the throw-away rockets that began the space age with a truck that could go in and out of orbit routinely. But trucks are no use if they do not deliver the goods, and the shuttle never did. If it had, then it would not, for instance, have remained a hostage to the weather. Routine transport systems do not quail in the face of the odd thunderstorm, but NASA will not launch a shuttle if storms are forecast within 20 miles of the Kennedy Space Centre and, with clouds gathering around Cape Canaveral, the final decision to let Atlantis fly was not made until 15 minutes before liftoff.

Nor, if shuttle launches had become routine, would they attract much attention from the general public. Train and plane spotting are regarded as eccentric precisely because they make a fetish of something quotidian. But more than half a million people came to watch the launch of Atlantis, because it was not quotidian. And that number was not just because Atlantis was the last; it was not untypical of other launches.

It also meant that your correspondent was advised to get to Kennedy early—and, indeed, he rose at 2am and was on site at 3. It was probably wise advice. He passed tourists staking out their places on bridges and shores with good visibility, even at that time in the morning. But it did mean a long vigil, listening to the latest details of the fuelling of Atlantis, the breakfast habits of her crew, and the appearance by one of the Muppets at something called a “tweetup”, which was, apparently, NASA’s acknowledgement of the phenomenon of social media.

It also meant watching the clock tick backwards.

Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space programme, despised the manufactured drama of the countdown. When the appointed time came to blast Yuri Gagarin into orbit, he simply pushed a button that completed the ignition circuit and watched the motors start. But NASA, the space agency of the land that invented Hollywood, has always understood that what it does is as much a branch of show business as it is a scientific and technological endeavour. Countdowns are an integral part of the theatre, even though the clock seems to spend as much time stopped as it does ticking towards zero. Indeed, there was at one point the minor absurdity of a countdown to the resumption of the countdown.

Eventually, though, the moment came. After a small delay caused by worries about the retraction of one of the supporting gantries, the engines ignited, the air shook and Atlantis rose into the clouds on a Biblical pillar of smoke. Eight and a half minutes later she was in orbit, ready to complete her mission of carrying supplies to the space station. In that respect, at least, she has fulfilled her goal of becoming a space truck. But acting as a grocery-delivery van was probably not what, more than 30 years ago, the original shuttle’s designers had in mind.

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