There’s still space

Harold Fisch

Last week marked the end of a chapter of American space exploration with the final mission of the shuttle Atlantis. The closing of the shuttle program is bittersweet for the nation and may be painful for many in Texas.

Nearly 9,500 workers involved in the shuttle program may lose their jobs in the coming months. Many of those jobs are in Houston, and some fear that the layoffs will create a brain drain from the city. The layoffs, reported by the Associated Press on Thursday, will affect a large swath of employees from high-ranking managers to janitorial staff.

The future of American space exploration is uncertain. President George W. Bush ordered the cancellation of the shuttle program soon after the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Columbia and replaced it with an ambitious plan to send astronauts back to the moon, in preparation for a later trip to Mars. President Barack Obama scrapped those plans for perhaps a more ambitious yet far less inspirational goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid.

The space program is Houston’s fourth largest industry and is central to the city’s image. Since 1967, Houston has been known as space city and is home to the Astros and the Rockets.

Along with the loss of jobs, the hit from decreased tourism will also be felt. The Johnson Space Center, with its annual space camps and museums, has been a draw for thousands of visitors to the city of Houston for years. Although the space center is not canceling any other programs, it may experience waning interest.

There is also a large network of restaurants, hotels and souvenir and retail shops that use the imagery of the shuttle program and depend on the tourism it creates.

Commentators have suggested America’s endeavors into space are over. The end of the shuttle program may be a frightening time for NASA, but it in no way means American space exploration is over. Americans will still endeavor to reach the far corners of space, and there will still be astronauts. They will just not likely be on the government payroll.

As with many things, the end of one chapter means the start of another, and Houston and the entire state of Texas stand to benefit from what may be a new boom in endeavors into space by private companies. The shuttle program has been active for nearly 30 years, and except for some technical updates, the program has changed very little since its inception years ago. For many years now, the shuttle program has not been the source of inspiration supporters of the program paint it to be. Its closing allows for new attempts into space by organizations not so bogged down by bureaucracy.

Last month, the Valley Morning Star reported an aerospace company is looking to lease 50 acres in the Rio Grande Valley’s Willacy County for a launch site. More such projects are envisioned to follow.

Students of engineering who may have been dreaming of landing jobs working in NASA’s shuttle program may have trouble reaching that goal in the next few years. But they may instead find themselves involved in start-up companies attempting to fill the void left by the defunct shuttle program.

Fisch is a rhetoric and writing senior