Yesterday’s News – 08Jul11

So today, the very last mission of the space shuttle was launched.

I know several people who can speak about all the technical aspects more knowledgeably than I can, so here are some of them.

Dr. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Dr. Pamela Gay, host of The Astronomy Cast

Laura Burns

Anyway, I’m not especially qualified to educate anyone on the shuttle program, but I can say that it’s always been something that meant a lot to me. When I was a kid, we would often go down and visit my grandfather and uncle in Florida, and that’s why I was there when the Challenger blew up. I wasn’t there at Kennedy Space Center or anything, but Titusville, FL, where my grandfather lived, is not far away, and it was close enough to see the launch trail in the sky. Now, I was only seven years old at the time, and we weren’t close enough to really tell what had happened except for a sort of “That doesn’t look right” feeling.

Still though, the incident has always left me feeling like I have a personal connection to the program, if only a very small one.

The last shuttle mission is beautiful, but still sad.

It’s not that I think we should keep the shuttle going. Any space vehicle should have an expected operational lifetime, and unless we wanted to build NEW shuttles, it just makes good sense that the existing shuttles should be retired at some point. The sad part, of course, is that we don’t have some other program to replace it.

It’s great that several private companies are working hard to develop orbital launch vehicles, and I think that ultimately, this is probably the direction it all needs to go, if we are ever to move into space in a serious way. However, even though there are some really exciting developments coming out of companies like Space X, they are still a long ways out from having even an equivalent to the space shuttle, much less something that could take us to the moon, or to Mars.

It’s not fair to really blame the government or NASA for this, because it’s really the American people who have not collectively demanded further space exploration. Many argue that the money could be better spent here at home, rather than going “Out there”.

It’s definitely true that there is a lot of value in robotic rovers and probes and all that, but I think that manned exploration is a necessity. Some may argue that there is no practical benefit, but even if there isn’t, I think that human beings need something that raises our eyes from the every-day. We live our lives, work at our jobs, and focusing, as we should, on our immediate concerns. But without having anything else, something that elevates us as a species, we can start wondering what’s the point.

When we went to the moon, that is a task that rivals the mythical tasks of Hercules. We, as a people, decided to perform a great work, and then we followed through. Humanity needs great works in order to be great. Exploration is not something that can just be put on the back burner, or else we lose the drive. I don’t want that to happen.

Going to space is hard. But we can do it if we want it bad enough.