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Timing makes sense to end shuttle program, NIU professor says

Published: Friday, July 8, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT

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DeKALB – Today’s scheduled launch of the Atlantis space shuttle will mark the last of its kind in the 40-year shuttle program, but those in the science field said it’s far from the end of U.S. human space exploration.

The Atlantis is scheduled to launch today at 10:26 a.m. CDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, weather permitting. It will be the last U.S. shuttle to carry astronauts to space – at least for now. The shuttle is heading to the International Space Station to drop off supplies.

Budget constraints and new technology partially led to the end of the program, but physicists are also seeking safer and more efficient means of space exploration.

Matt Wiesner, NIU Observatory manager, said the shuttle program started decades ago during the Apollo program in the early 1960s. After landing on the moon six times in single-use models, NASA officials started seeking ways to create reusable shuttles to make space travel more efficient.

The first American-manned space flight came in 1981 with the launch of the Columbia. The launch of the Atlantis will mark the 135th shuttle mission to space since the program began.

“So many things can go wrong,” he said. “This thing is so complicated that the chance of failure is quite a bit higher than we thought.”

Officials then began to weigh the risks of human space travel against its benefits, he said. David Hedin, an NIU physics professor, said technological advances have helped steer the program away from the necessity to put humans in space.

“From a scientific point of view, it’s the right time to be ending [the program],” he said.

Ending the program with no clear future in sight is unsettling for Wiesner, who hopes it doesn’t lead the United States to lose its foothold as a leader in space exploration.

“The space shuttle program is ending, and we don’t have the next program in place,” he said. “We’ve been leaders. We should not lose our place as leaders in science and technology, and we’re starting to.”

Many people are lost in the cynicism that everything already has been discovered, Wiesner said, which isn’t true. He said we barely understand the solar system Earth is in, and it was only in 1995 that the first of thousands of possible planets outside of our solar system was discovered. Little is known about dark matter, which makes up a quarter of the universe, he added.

Space exploration is relevant to life on Earth, Hedin said. For example, by studying the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system, more can be learned about global warming.

Rather than sending humans into space, technology has advanced enough in the last few decades that NASA officials are able to gather the same information remotely by using photos and robots, Hedin said.

“You’re getting a lot more science for the dollars,” he said. “But it’s not as romantic.”

Wiesner said there’s plenty of value in putting humans in space because it draws out the adventure of an undiscovered frontier. However, he believes the end of the shuttle program is only a hiccup in human space exploration for the U.S.

“Americans are going to make another space vehicle,” Wiesner said. “When and how it will come, I don’t know. But it will come.”

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