Friday, July 8, 2011

The End of the Shuttle Era

The final launch in the merely thirty year old Space Shuttle program happened earlier today. Though the program certainly has its detractors, for me at least the real legacy of the Shuttle is one of imagination. Starblazers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Star Trek were all things I watched as a young boy, and the Shuttle made them all seem possible. Back then I had never made a budget or studied Physics, I was just someone looking up into the sky and wondering what new wonders we would find.

Somehow it seems fitting that the final Shuttle mission belongs to Atlantis. We have gone from Enterprise envisioning the future of space travel and carrying the proud name and legacy of American engineering with her, to a legend that has sunk from our sight. The greatest achievement of the Shuttle program may be that launches stopped being a big deal. I'm still not sure what societal forces make such a thing possible. Sending people into space has lost none of its impact on me. It's incredible, dangerous, audacious, expensive, and utterly astounding.

Upon the completion of mission STS-135, the U.S. government will be out of the manned space flight game for the foreseeable future. You can't really blame them at a time when there are real issues that require attention, and yes, money. It will be left to the private companies to try and create viable businesses out of space flight. It's even possible they will succeed, and I certainly wish them well. With the Constellation program dead and the James Webb telescope in danger, NASA's direction remains unclear. My increasingly hypothetical children will have no Apollo program, no shuttle launches, and maybe even no Hubble-like photos of the cosmos to inspire them. And then what?

Let's face it, the vast majority of people will not even notice, let alone care. The Shuttle will become a part of history. Less expensive robots will carry on with the science. Space isn't going anywhere. Perhaps the names Enterprise, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour will represent a unique time in human history. But maybe someone will look back at the Space Shuttle and see not the past, but an example of the way to the future. You can cut funding, you can end a program, but you can't kill an idea. The Shuttles, the scientists, engineers, pilots, and countless others that made them real, leave behind an inspiring legacy. And what has been done once can be done again, even better, if you have a little imagination.

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