I just watched the final shuttle launch, as I’ve watched them for 30 years. I admit that I am perhaps a little more emotional about this than I should be.
The frame of reference for a child of the ‘70s was that the only real way to get into space was to strap yourself to the tip of a Saturn V rocket and hope for the best. Rockets were menacingly large, deadly-looking, expensive, and disposable. Seeing the drawings and photos for the new shuttles was like stepping into a Syd Mead illustration and seeing science-fiction dreams coming to life. To see it fly was to see that we could actually set out and accomplish amazing things when we want to.
I comforts me greatly to know that even though I sit at a desk and do my very common job every day, there are people out there whose jobs are to strive against long odds to reach beyond our mundane understanding of ourselves. I like knowing that the idealistic purpose of their employment is not to serve the almighty dollar, but to take all we’ve learned and use it to step out across the brink into the unknown. They are the men who, through their small steps, are making the giant leaps for mankind. We, as a country and a species, have to keep looking to the horizon to be more, greater, smarter, and wiser than we are today. If we don’t, I fear we’ll start looking inward and eventually destroy ourselves through greed, fear, and hate.
I don’t pretend to believe that shutting down the program is the right thing to do. Even the still-flying Russians are incredulous that although we possess what is still the world’s most advanced space vehicle system, we are shutting it down and dispersing our human, knowledge, and physical assets to the wind. The Shuttle may have reached the end of its natural life-cycle, but I feel like we should have had the new Constellation program well under way by now, with a viable future and mission. Instead, Constellation has been cancelled, and our universe just got smaller.
For the foreseeable future, we will be relying on those very Russians to put our astronauts into space for us (that sting you feel is your pride.) Part of my distaste for this idea has to be some kind of emotional hold-over of feelings from living in the cold war, pre-glasnost era of American-Soviet relations, but I think that it has more to do with my pride in the United States as an idealistic, self-reliant nation. We will now be outsourcing one of the few remaining examples of our great society collectively stepping outside of its self-serving motivations and accomplishing great things in the interest of furthering mankind’s understanding. I feel like we just lost the space race by forfeit.
On a very personal note, I would like to thank all the fearless men and women on the ground and in the air who have brought those dreams to life and made this program so successful, and I wish the best for you. I look forward to the day when we once again step across the brink into the unknown.
Come home safe, Atlantis.
“Earth below us, drifting falling,
floating weightless, coming home.”