The Last Space Shuttle-The End of a Dream?
The last space shuttle launch was today. Here in Orlando, I can normally see it from my house but I was on the highway and missed it. Ironically, I was picking up my son in Melbourne, virtually next door to the Kennedy Space Center, where he just completed his master’s degree in aerospace engineering. For reasons unknown, we did not see it from I-95 on the way back. I thought we would. Perhaps just as well.
The last shuttle launch feels like it marks the end of an era and the end of a dream. Not just of manned exploration of space but of the vision of the future many of us once had. When I was a kid back in the 1960’s, the 21st Century was supposed to represent a bright future with permanent bases on the moon and Von Braun style space stations rotating majestically in orbit providing a step off point for further exploration. It was supposed to represent the era when humankind finally realized the ideals of the enlightenment, in which science and reason finally triumphed over faith and superstition. The launch of the last space shuttle feels like this dream’s headstone.
It was a good dream. I embraced it. Humans could overcome their differences, which, from a perspective you can only really appreciate from space, seem petty and minor. Once we could see Earth as a place from the outside, people would finally realize that what they have in common is far more important than anything that divides them. We would learn to work together, stop wasting resources squabbling among ourselves, and do something important. We would explore, discover, learn, and venture out where no one has gone before.
Didn’t happen. And with the last shuttle, I can’t help fearing it may never happen. The space shuttle may not have been the most practical or economic space vehicle and it was certainly dangerous, but, to me, it represented America’s commitment to that 1960’s dream of the future. And we have nothing to replace it–no manned space program, no optimistic dream.
People still have dreams, of course – some even look forward to the end of the world – which, quite frankly, seems pretty sick to me, but that one dream many of us had of a bright future, an optimistic future, seems to be gone. Manned space exploration has little public or political support. Waging wars over natural resources or religion seem much more popular. We spent more money occupying Iraq than it would have cost to put people on Mars and we probably spend more keeping troops overseas than it would cost to man a permanent base on the moon. Our politicians make names for themselves by intentionally flaming passions and conflicts between people over relatively trivial matters or over issues that should be purely personal. What went wrong? Am I the only one who thinks our priorities are screwed up?