Donald Luttermoser turned 5 years old the day John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
That historic event in 1962 had a profound effect on Luttermoser’s life. He is now the chairman of the physics and astronomy department at East Tennessee State University.
“I was born in (1957) and I grew up with the space race,” Luttermoser said. “It’s one of the reasons I became an astronomer, because of all the publicity.”
He thought it was regrettable that NASA has ended its manned shuttle program for a couple of reasons — the recruitment tool it was for the field of science and the kind of knowledge gained from space exploration.
Luttermoser said the manned space shuttle program has been very beneficial in terms of gathering knowledge about the universe because astronauts who repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that can peer deep into space and has captured some astounding images from far away, will no longer be available to do needed repairs. The 21-year-old Hubble telescope logged 1 million science observations as of July 4th.
Because Hubble is so old, it needs to be repaired sometimes. Without a shuttle to ferry astronauts up to replace worn parts, it is only a matter of time before Hubble stops functioning and must be de-orbited, Luttermoser said.
Hubble was instrumental in establishing the age of the universe at about 14 billion years, determining most galaxies have black holes and in seeing how planets form.
“Without (Hubble) we wouldn’t have been able to do that, so perhaps that’s the best thing the shuttle program has done,” Luttermoser said. “The amount of new knowledge that we’ve gotten about the universe has been amazing from the Hubble mission.”
Plans had been to replace Hubble with a new device called the James Webb Telescope; however, its future is uncertain amid budget cuts.
In terms of acquiring data and knowledge, a manned space program in not absolutely necessary for astronomy, but astronauts sure help generate interest in the field, Luttermoser said.
“There may be people who choose not to pursue science or astronomy careers as a result” of the shuttle program shutting down, Luttermoser said.
For the time being, the ending of the shuttle program should have no effect on the science of astronomy, Luttermoser said. There are still many telescopes on Earth and in low orbit. And NASA will continue to launch probes and other information-gathering crafts via rockets.
ETSU astronomy professor Beverly Smith agreed that Hubble was a huge beneficiary of the shuttle program. She thought the biggest concern facing astronomy was the cutting of funding from NASA, which will cost jobs and likely equipment available for future space missions.
“There are still going to be opportunities to do research,” Smith said. “There will be different focuses depending on what telescopes are available.”
But will America ever put humans in space again? Perhaps, if the government rents space on Russian craft, but those are too small to carry repair tools, Luttermoser said. It would likely be a generation or so before another manned shuttle program is undertaken by NASA, Luttermoser said.
“I’d say we’d have to wait on the order of 20 years to see something,” Luttermoser said.
In the 1960s the shuttle program produced successful results in less than a decade, but the government was pouring lots of money into it. There is the notion that private business could begin space flights, but Luttermoser was doubtful.
“But I actually don’t see that happening, either, because they want profits right away and you can’t get profits right away,” Luttermoser said. “I could be wrong but I doubt that’ll happen.”