Early yesterday morning, I was tempted to drive up the coast to see the last shuttle launch. I heard news stories about people driving down from the Midwest, and I thought, I'm so much closer--why aren't I driving up there?
Thursday was a day of monsoon rains, with forecasts for more, so I assumed the launch wouldn't happen. And I had meetings, and gas is expensive, and how could I be sure I'd get a space--I had any number of reasons why I didn't go.
On many levels, this last shuttle launch makes me feel sad. I'd understand grounding the shuttle program if we had a different project we wanted to fund. But as far as I can see, there's nothing in the works.
I've been a space fan for as long as I can remember. I have a fuzzy memory of being woken up for the moon walk in 1969, of my parents saying, "This is historic, and one day you can tell your kids that you saw a man walk on the moon."
My mother has no memory of this, so maybe it's a manufactured memory. But thoughts of space permeated my childhood and adolescence. We watched launches and landings. We drank Tang, and when we visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, we stocked up on Astronaut Ice Cream (a freeze-dried, Neapolitan flavored, crisp in a foil package). I did reports on the planets. I waited for Skylab to fall on my head.
I remembering hearing the first space shuttle launch. My mom, my sister, and I were driving across the mountains that separate Tennessee and Virginia. My parents hadn't sold their house in Charlottesville when my dad got his job in Knoxville, and so we drove back and forth several times to keep tabs on it. It always felt like an adventure to me; my parents kept any distress they were feeling about two mortgages to themselves.
On the day of the launch, my mom and I listened intently on the radio. We talked about the future of space travel. We would have expected colonies on Mars by now--it seemed the space program grew by leaps and bounds each year.
I was reminded of those early years of the program (before I was born) lately when we watched The Right Stuff. That movie made me want to watch Apollo 13, so we did. It was space program movie festival afternoon--and thoroughly enjoyable.
But it also made me sad. What happened to the country that produced those early astronauts, physicists, and engineers? Why don't we seem to aspire to great feats anymore?
I suspect there aren't easy answers. But I do know that our schools produced more scientists when we had a thriving space program. The space program fired imaginations so much that students were willing to learn difficult subjects for a shot at riding into space.
You might argue that we need to spend those resources here on earth, but I'd point out all the wonderful developments that came out of the space program that enrich us here on earth--perhaps most notably the personal computer.
I think of the young narrator in Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower. Lauren is a fervent believer in the space program of 2024. She says, "Well, we're barely a nation at all anymore, but I'm glad we're still in space. We have to be going some place other than down the toilet. . . . Mars is a rock--cold, empty, almost airless, dead. Yet it's heaven in a way. We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who've made such a hell of life here on earth."
So, farewell space shuttle program. I look forward to seeing what comes next. I'm fervently hoping that something important does come next.
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