Coming fast on the heels of Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the official handing over control from Canadian to US armed forces is another milestone ending in Canadian – actually, world – history: the closing of the space shuttle program.
Canada has played a significant role in outer space for a country of our small population, and the conclusion of the shuttle program should give Canadians – and the Canadian aerospace industry – time to consider what has been accomplished, and, more importantly, what comes next. Because as The Economist argues, “it is…conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.”
For Canada, the end of the shuttle program will cap the number of our astronauts who have made it into orbit at 5 – 6 if you include Canada’s most iconic astronaut, the illustrious Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, better known as the Canadarm. The Canadarm will also be used for the last time as the program concludes, but after 50 missions and three decades in service on shuttles and the International Space Station, the Canadarm I and II have paid their dues, and will likely be retired to a museum after their service life has ended. The Winnipeg Free Press has an interesting story on the generations of workers in Canada’s aerospace industry who have worked and re-worked the Canadarm to prominence.
What will they do now? Chances are, as technologies evolve, they will find other uses for the technology behind the Canadarm, or they will adapt to find new technologies needed in this new age of space exploration. But this new age seems a misnomer, largely because it seems a significantly toned down version of the kind first imagined by cosmonauts in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the possibilities of space flight captured the imagination of the world.
But The Economist is right that the passion is gone from space exploration. “The technology could be there,” they argue, “but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.” Where once money was no object in humanity’s quest to better understand the vast universe in which we live, money is now the only object. The financial realities of mounting debt and economic austerity leaves little enthusiasm for answering the theoretical questions of the universe when so many Americans wonder daily how to pay the mortgage and feed their families at the same time. Economics is now a trump card.
As the shuttle program winds down, it is not only industry that must chart a new path through unknowns, although they must find new ways to stay relevant when society will no longer foot the bill for space travel. People themselves must question what understanding the universe means to them in a world where the daily grind alone often seems insurmountable. Understanding the universe will cost us, all of us, but what is that worth to us as North Americans? As humans? Even making it to Mars, previously the “El Dorado of space exploration,” seems to have lost its lustre in the public’s mind.
So – what’s next? For industry, it’s simpler to answer: they begin looking for alternative uses for their technology. “The Canadian Space Agency is…working on the next generation of Canadarms,” according to the Free Press, “which would be robotic tow trucks used to service satellites including refuelling and repair tasks.” Less romance, more utilitarian – but it keeps the dream alive, I suppose.
But for the average human still curious about the expanse of the universe, this is a dark time as this chapter closes on space exploration. Because until the second coming of Jesus Christ reveals the mysteries of the universe, or a radical reduction occurs in the operating costs of space travel, neither of which I will hold my breath for, humanity will have to keep on guessing.