July 11th, 2011

This post was originally published in April 2010.  The shuttle program’s final mission lauched on Friday, so I thought it timely and appropriate to offer these thoughts again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to various newscasters mention the impending shuttering of the NASA shuttle program.  After 30-some years of space exploration, the program is being disbanded, and surprisingly, I care.

I am not a science buff.  I care very little about space exploration, rockets, moon dust, and the like.  It is all so far away, so abstract, and has so little bearing on my daily life.  Other than the disasters, all of our space exploration has captured very little of my attention.  Nevertheless, the romance of it resonates with me.

I can imagine the 1960s.  I can picture the race with Russia.  I can understand the sense of incredible national accomplishment of Neil Armstrong’s small step that was for our country a giant leap.  And I can understand how the realization of President Kennedy’s dream fostered pride in Americans and a drive to keep striving for more.

My life has never existed without NASA buzzing about somewhere in the background; shuttles preparing to launch; satellite photos showing up in National Geographic and Time magazines.  I was born into the country that won the space race and wore that badge proudly.  As a product of the seventies I have never seen America’s superiority legitimately challenged, and there’s a certain level of braggadocio that can develop as a result.

But now we’re sitting down for a few years.  We’re going to have to hitch rides on a Russian shuttle while our own program is in time out.  Granted, there is a new program on the horizon, but it will be several years before the Constellation program is actively launching anything.  And there’s something about this that makes me a little bit sad.  It’s reassuring to know that your country’s best and brightest are behind the wheel, doing things that you will never be smart or brave enough to do yourself.

When I say it like this it feels silly.  Much as the shuttle program didn’t affect my daily life during its lifespan, its ending likely won’t either.  And if I gleaned any sense of security from our space exploration it was probably unfounded.  I suspect that subconsciously I liked to believe that if we had the time and money to be bouncing around space, then things here on the ground must be in pretty good shape.  But I don’t have to read too many headlines to know that’s not true.

I guess what it boils down to is that there is something romantic and powerful about space travel.  And walking away from it – even if temporarily – feels like we’re taking a step backward.  Once the newness of this change has worn off the topic of our space exploration program will probably return to the outer recesses of my mind.  But when it comes back, I’ll be cheering for it to be better than ever before.

3 Responses to “Grounded”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    I hear what you’re saying. I grew up in DC going to Air & Space Museum and watching IMAX movies about the space shuttle (and lets not forget the cinematic masterpiece, Space Camp with Joaquin Phoenix!) and yes, it fueled so much of my imagination and possibilities. You’re right, I probably won’t even notice that its gone but just acknowledging it deserves a moment of reflection as you’ve so eloquently done (as usual).

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I just remember the Challenger exploding (who doesn’t?). I don’t know…I think it’s better to spend our money (if the assholes in Washington allocate it properly) on the people here on ground. People who are real to us. But no more money on wars, dammit.

    Good stuff to think on.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I was a kid at the time, but I remember staying up into the night to watch the space walk in July 1969. It was thrilling – staggering, really. We were a country already in the process of losing our innocence to racial violence, to upheaval over Vietnam, and trying – hoping – that something different was possible.

    And here we are.

    For me, the end of the Shuttle program is more symbolic than anything else. We are surely long past our innocence. We have made strides in some areas, and fallen back – so far back – in others.

    I hope that our explorations in the 21st century will focus on the wonder of other fantastic voyages – perhaps those of the human body, with so many ills to cure.