Well, the 135th and final mission of the Space Shuttle program ended earlier today. I watched the first launch back in the day, and space exploration (with humans or not) has been a major influence on where I ended up professionally, as I noted yesterday.
There’s a multitude of things I could talk about at this point. I became interested in space exploration post-Apollo (I was in diapers at the last Moon landing), and will continue to be interested. The paradoxes inherent in developing big things to last a long time are often overlooked in this area. I think this explains part of why this ending can seem like such a step backward. That a system designed, tested and made operational over 30 years ago still represents the leading edge of space transportation is frustrating. Explainable, but still frustrating.
To borrow from Thomas Hughes, the technological salient (the sticking point, if you will) of reusable space transportation remains one of cost. As that has been a major political salient for human space exploration, the combination is powerful. (Arguably the political salient has been the bigger challenge throughout NASA’s history.) So we take a step back, idealistically, to take a step forward somewhere else. What can we do better with 60s space technology today? At some level the choices before us are to try and answer that question, with a lot of different possible solutions, or to completely retreat. I know which I prefer.