End of an era in space


July 8th, 2011

Omaha, NE – It’s the end of an era. The NASA shuttle program that brought the world the incredible images of distant galaxies and luminous nebulae from the Hubble Space Telescope came to an end Friday, with the final launch of Shuttle Atlantis. But end of the old program introduces a new phase in space exploration.

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Space Shuttle Columbia first launched on April 12th, 1981. It was the first in NASA’s Space Shuttle program that sent astronauts and scientists into orbit.

Space Shuttle Challenger was NASA's second space shuttle launched into orbit, after Columbia. Challenger broke apart on a later mission in 1986, killing all seven of its crew members. (Photo taken April 4, 1983, courtesy NASA)

“The shuttle itself has been flying for 30 years,” said Jack Dunn, Planetarium Coordinator for Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska State Museum. “I think people have become to the point where they almost take it for granted that you’d always see that in your lifetime.”

The Space Shuttle program is making a dramatic shift. In a time of soaring deficits and budget crunching, the U.S. government is taking a step back to make way for private enterprise. That means companies like Virgin could start offering private space tours. But whether the companies will be motivated to keep the focus on scientific research, Dunn said, is still up in the air.

“One of the big benefits that has always come from space exploration is in the technology, the basic technology in your cell phone, or in your computer chip,” Dunn said, “came from research that was done that was aimed at building a smaller, lighter, faster whatever, in space technology, and now, will we have that?”

The Hubble Space Telescope captured breathtaking images of earth, the solar system and surrounding galaxies. (Photo taken December 8, 1993, courtesy NASA)

But to keep space exploration alive, there’s another variable to consider: capturing the imagination. That’s one ability the Space Shuttle program might’ve lacked, Dunn said, at least when compared to the early Apollo missions to the moon.

“Unlike Apollo, which had a mission to go some place and explore,” he said, “We were going up and down.”
“We were going up to earth orbit, or going up later on to the space station. So there’s that exploration bug that helps get people emotionally going as much as anything else.”

But private space exploration may be able to capture the imagination too. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey?

“In that movie, they had a hotel on that orbiting space station,” Dunn said, remembering with excitement. “When I was a kid and saw that, I was waiting for the hotel!” he said. “But it’s not here, yet.”

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