I was sound asleep at home early this morning when the house shook with a double BANG. When you're in California and your house shakes you snap awake in a hurry because it could be the beginning of a big earthquake. But it wasn't. My husband went downstairs to look around outside but we couldn't figure out what had hit our house -- we weren't awake enough to think, yet, I guess. It was only when we had gotten up for good that we realized that it had been the sonic boom of the Shuttle, returning to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base. Lou Friedman reported to us in an email that he and his wife stepped outside their house and actually saw it fly in. "Neat," he remarked.
Wouldn't it be cool if the Shuttle missions were as commonplace as they had been imagined originally? Shuttles were supposed to be launching and landing routinely, a dozen, 30, even 48 times a year. We Angelenos would have felt ourselves a real part of the space age. We probably would be whining and moaning about being woken up routinely in the early hours of the moning by the sonic booms of the returning Shuttles. The complaint would have been a badge of honor. It's too bad it didn't turn out that way.
It's a relief that the landing happened safely. With the astronauts on the ground NASA gets to go back to trying to solve the foam problem again. What's been most disheartening about this whole episode is the pronouncements of various people in the media that NASA is "moribund" or "in the doldrums" or whatever. The manned space program has a serious vision problem right now, to be sure. But the robotic program is accomplishing incredible things. There are those who try to make a fight out of this contrast, but I think that arguments between people who favor manned exploration and people who say it's too expensive and we can accomplish everything in space with robots are like dog fanciers arguing with cat fanciers. It's a pointless argument without any possible resolution. We need both manned and robotic exploration. And if manned exploration is going to get anywhere, it will need robots -- for reconnaissance, first of all, and then for development and maintenance of the infrastructure humans need to survive, and then to assist human exploration.