As the final space shuttle flight lifts off from Cape Canaveral on July 8 (if Mother Nature cooperates), American University School of Public Affairs professor Howard McCurdy will be watching from Seattle with mixed feelings. The author of seven books on space and an unabashed fan of the “popular culture of space,” McCurdy spoke with American Today about Atlantis’ historic mission.
American Today: What are your emotions about the final shuttle flight?
Howard McCurdy: I’m sorry it didn’t happen 20 years ago. The original plan was that by now we’d be flying advanced versions of the shuttle. I remember [former NASA administrator] Dan Goldin saying that he wanted to have advanced flight vehicles that would be as safe as military combat aircraft. That’s about one [incident] every 23,000 flights. I think we’ll reach it someday but we’re just creeping toward it. Compared to the experience with aviation, where we had jet airliners within 50 years of the Wright brothers, it’s moved very slowly. So in many ways I’m happy to see it retire, but I’m sad the next version isn’t going to roll out tomorrow.
AT: What sort of manned spacecraft will we see in the future?
McCurdy: We’re heading back to the cannonball approach to space flight. The commercial sector will do the work, but the technology is the 1960s. It’s not where you want to go. We’re going forwards and we’re going backwards. Now there’s a much more diverse workforce that does space flight, but the technology is basically 1960s.
There was talk of very low weight vehicles using composite materials. There will be technology breakthroughs in the coming years, but for now the private sector will do low earth orbit for the United States. That allows NASA to concentrate on deep space issues, flights to Mars.
AT: How does the end of the shuttle program signal a shift in the country’s overall strategy of space exploration?
McCurdy: I think you’ll see a great deal of our manned space and robotic technology stepping out beyond the moon and into the solar system. It’s the small capsules that are going to be a real psychological challenge. If you remember the bridge on the Starship Enterprise, there was plenty of head room. The difficulty is the cost is not coming down. Until we get it to come down the vehicles are going to be more like tents.
AT: Why is space exploration still important?
McCurdy: For lots of reasons, but not the ones that get talked about up on Capitol Hill. I’m really interested in the popular culture of space. I agree with Carl Sagan; I think as humans we’re a migratory species. To be confined to one village or planet is simply unacceptable to human beings. People have a natural instinctive urge to think about moving on.
AT: What about more practical reasons?
McCurdy: We use space for everything now. You can’t cash a check without a satellite. Everything we do in space supports our technological society. The next 100 years of advances in space is essential to our economy.
In national security it’s the new high ground. We do a lot of surveillance and targeting from space. National prestige is still a very huge element in both the human and robotic space program. Then there’s the science. We’re able to bring back important images of planets and their moons.
AT: Given the seemingly constant concerns about spending in Washington, are you optimistic about the future of space exploration in this country, or worried?
McCurdy: I’m generally optimistic about it. We’ve got to accept as a given that the NASA budget is essentially fixed. About $18 billion a year. The challenge then is to figure out how to do missions less expensively than we did them. In today’s dollars the Viking Missions to Mars [in the 1970s] were $4 billion. Now we’re doing missions to Mars in the millions.
It will require a different kind of space agency. The future is going to be small projects and creative ways of doing big things with less money. Those are the kinds of breakthroughs you need. I think the fixed budget is good disciple for the space program.