Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21, 2011: One Small Step Backwards

Early this morning, the shuttle Atlantis touched down at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, putting an end to both NASA’s thirty-year Space Shuttle program and, for perhaps the next decade, its ability to send astronauts into space. Until a replacement for the shuttle program is found, getting Americans into space will require paying the Russian space program some sixty million dollars per passenger to hitch a ride on fifty-year-old Soviet space technology—rather than, say, something developed by this country, or in this century.1 Constellation, the project originally intended to replace the shuttle, has essentially been scrapped; plans to return to the Moon and establish an extended human presence there are more or less on indefinite hold; and the idea of a manned mission to Mars has rarely seemed so unlikely as NASA “faces [its] biggest crisis since its formation in 1958.”

Kids of the 1980s who grew up fascinated by space travel are about a dime a dozen,2 so my lingering childhood attachment to the space program is nothing special—except, of course, to me and my fellow nerdlings. I remember wishing I’d been born early enough to remember the Apollo 11 landing, or the first spacewalk, or the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous, instead of just reading about them in books that didn’t have enough pictures.3

And I’m certainly not the only kid born in the 1970s who dreamed of being an astronaut. I think I would have made it, too, had I not been unfairly held back by nearsightedness, mathematical ineptitude, poor coordination, poor reaction time, an aggressive vomit reflex, dislike of hard work and/or getting dirty, and general overall cowardice. I’m lucky I can balance a checkbook or successfully navigate a staircase; operating a billion-dollar piece of machinery in a deadly environment—without throwing up—was out of the question long before I realized it.

It’s possible, then, that I’m taking this a touch harder than I really should, that instead of seeing the somewhat mundane reality, I’m seeing only the childhood dream that’s being whittled away to a nub, and taking it personally.

Not too long ago4 I wrote that the space program once inspired us to be ingenious, intelligent, clever, and courageous,5 and maybe cutting budgets, shunning the notion of exploring the unknown, and laying off hundreds of NASA workers is ingenious and courageous in its own right.6 To me, though, the end of the space shuttle program—with no replacement in sight—and the apparent public and governmental disinterest in space exploration powerfully reinforce the notion that there’s no dream we can’t effectively defer by being sufficiently myopic, small-minded, foolish, and afraid. 

The sky, at the moment, really is our limit.

1. Of course, the Space Shuttles weren’t designed in this century, but they were at least American-made. So that's one for two.
2. Not adjusted for inflation.
3. We reserve the right to switch from the “editorial we” to the first-person singular whenever it suits me. We just hope that I avoid doing so in mid-sentence, because we worry about the odds that I will confuse myselves.
4. Yesterday.
5. Or something like that. I wasn't really paying attention.
6. It’s not.

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