flown piggyback style from Kennedy Space Center to the Smithsonian last week. (Sad, but also...friggin' awesome. I mean, look at that picture!)
Anyhow. Retiring the shuttles has stirred up loads of controversy. Mostly regarding the lack of plans for any immediate replacement.
I am all for the retirement of these vehicles. They're dangerous and old. Do I wish we had new ones ready to take their place? Of course. But we don't.
A rant on that deserves its own post, so I'll leave that thought for now. While it is important to acknowledge the end of this great space story, it's equally important to highlight the start of a new one:
THERE IS A FREAKING AMAZING PLAN TO START MINING ASTEROIDS. FOR REALSIES.
Planetary Resources is a company consisting of loads of ex-NASA folks and backed by X-Prize billionaire founders, Google execs, and James Cameron (who just got back from visiting the deepest part of the ocean). And they are going to make asteroid mining a reality.
Okay, so they aren't mining asteroids just yet. But they do have the groundwork laid. Their first step is to send up small space telescopes to locate and examine asteroids around us. Next, they'll tap for non-precious materials in the space rocks, like water, which will be critical as a resource out in space for both these asteroid missions, and pretty much any other mission. They'll make reservoirs of such resources to float around out there for others to use (at a price, I'm sure). Finally, the third step is the actual asteroid mining.
The cool part about this is that their goal isn't just to make loads of money by mining precious metals, etc, but rather to lead the way into further space exploration. Odds are, money won't start coming in from these operations for decades to come. So they really aren't out to get rich quick, here. These are people who are genuine visionaries and are doing this just to see if it can be done.
And it can be. Visit Phil Plait's blog (Bad Astronomy) if you want a more in-depth and professional explanation of what's going on. This isn't impossible. It can be done.
Will it be done?
I don't have an answer to that.
It's exactly like writing a novel. You start out with a great idea. You might even put together a solid plan. But as you begin, you find obstacles. You are forced to make changes. New ideas pop up halfway into things. And your end result might not be what you'd been originally planning at all. Or maybe it will be. Or maybe there will be no end result, because you fizzle out and lose interest.
Any and all of that is possible with this new endeavor that Planetary Resources is embarking upon. But regardless of where it goes, this is the start of a new space story. We're not done with you, Outer Space. Even as we pack away our shuttles, humans still have their eyes trained up at the stars.
And that makes me ridiculously happy.