Atlantis shuttle retirement could mark the end of America’s dominance of space flight
(20 July 2011)
The final landing of NASA space shuttle Atlantis could mark the beginning of the end of America's dominance of human space flight, according to a leading astronomer at Durham University.
Professor Martin Ward, Head of Physics and former consultant of the European Space Agency, said the retirement of the USA's three-strong shuttle fleet could see "the baton of human space flight" being passed to emerging countries such as China and India.
NASA is investigating the use of commercially-funded spacecraft for manned missions into space. Professor Ward added that he hoped the USA's withdrawal from human space flight would not curtail astronomers' efforts to understand the universe using unmanned space missions.
The USA will now be without the capacity to launch manned space flights, leaving the International Space Station solely dependent on Russian rockets for transportation of the crew.
Professor Ward continued:
"In terms of human space flight the United States has no coherent plan for the future, just a vague long term hope that commercial interests might fill the current void. They no longer have any means to launch humans into space - something that has always been a crucial part of the way scientists seek to understand the universe.
"The only countries now able to do this are Russia and China. Given the costs involved, it may well be that in the coming decades the baton of human space flight will be passed on to China and India. Crucially, these countries may also possess the essential motivation to 'boldly go forth'."
Professor Ward added: "Astronomers are now hoping that financial issues in the United States will not curtail our efforts to understand the universe and our place in it, for example uncertainty regarding future funding for the replacement of the Hubble Space Telescope."