Six Things We Lose With the End of the Shuttle Program

The shuttle's all-but-irreplaceable capabilities made it a vehicle that performed in unforeseen situations

5 min read

6 July 2011—For 30 years, the space shuttle fleet—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour—strutted its stuff in low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft's missions included simple payload deployments, science module sorties, and the delicate assembly and servicing of the International Space Station. They were also used for in-flight repairs to themselves and to other satellites, hyperprecision orbits for radar mapping, tethered experiments, and gentle close-in maneuvering with smaller spacecraft. Those capabilities were originally unimagined by their designers, and they firmly refute the old maxim that "form follows function." Indeed, the shuttles performed functions beyond the dreams of their builders.

The current stable of heavy-launch vehicles can carry deployable satellites and rocket stages as big as or bigger than any that the shuttles have ever launched. With replacement vehicles already being designed for specific manned missions, such as Earth-to-orbit taxi services or for beyond-low-Earth-orbit sorties, the biggest engineering questions must be these: What operational capabilities are we giving up by retiring the shuttles? And are we sure we can dispense with them? Because if the answers are "Too many" and "No!" we need to start planning how to regain them with new vehicles.

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Top Tech 2023: A Special Report

These two dozen technical projects should make significant advances in the coming year

2 min read
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
Edmon DeHaro

Each January, the editors of IEEE Spectrum offer up some predictions about technical developments we expect to be in the news over the coming year. You’ll find a couple dozen of those described in the following special report. Of course, the number of things we could have written about is far higher, so we had to be selective in picking which projects to feature. And we’re not ashamed to admit, gee-whiz appeal often shaped our choices.

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