February 16th, 2011
Episode 35 of 565 episodes
On 12 April 1981, the first US space shuttle, Columbia, blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Now, 30 years later, as Nasa prepares for the end on an era with the final shuttle flights, Jeff Hoffman, a veteran of five shuttle missions, looks back on three decades of the 'Space Transportation System' as it is officially known. Why did it never become the low-cost re-useable ride into space that had been intended, and what will the US Human Spaceflight programme do without it? There have been five space-worthy Shuttles. Now, following terrible accidents that destroyed Challenger and Columbia, there are three. Each is likely to make one last flight this year. Then they will become museum pieces and, for a while at least, the only way Americans will reach the International Space Station is as fare-paying passengers on Russian rockets. Constellation, an ambitious but under-funded plan by President George W Bush to return Americans to the Moon and on to Mars, has been cancelled by President Obama. Congress has charged Nasa to develop a heavy-lift rocket to take astronauts beyond Earth, but at a price they say it can’t be done for. Ferrying cargo and humans to the ISS is being left to private enterprise and there are some exiting, low cost options under development. But none will be ready until long after the shuttle retires. A generation of engineers and scientists was inspired by the Apollo Moon landings. They are mostly approaching retirement themselves, so how can Nasa inspire a new generation?