Space, the Final Frontier -- Looking Like a Ghost Town
I grew up in the middle of the greatest achievement of mankind's technical prowess. I was born in 1960. Sputnik launched in the middle of the Cold War in 1957 and the Space Race was on, baby. Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut (cosmonaut) in 1961. By the time of the summer of love, 1969, I watched, rapt, as Neil Armstrong slowly went down the ladder and touched down on the surface of the moon.
We beat the Russians! For me, it had nothing to do with beating another country to the moon. For me, it still doesn't. What matters to me is what the American Space Program did for us as a nation.
It showed that we could all lean into a vision, buy it and then make it happen. Hell, in 1968, people were still saying going to the moon was impossible. Not me. At all of 8 going on 9, I couldn't wait to grow up and get a job that would let me be in space. I thought, "We're on our way to stay!"
I watched the Apollo Program come and go. I watched Skylab go up -- then come down. I watched our Shuttle Program get started, then cut, and cut, and cut, until the original fleet of 12 shuttles was down to 5 with number 6 being on display at the Smithsonian.
And still, look what we as a country managed to do! This week (pending good weather) STS 135 will be launching, marking the end of the Shuttle Transportation System. And there will be nothing else on the boards, and has been nothing else on the boards, for decades.
In those 135 missions, we lost two shuttles and 14 good people. We pulled the Enterprise out of mothballs (and the Smithsonian) and prepped her for going to work. And what we managed to do with the four remaining craft, including the two long periods of inactivity after each lost craft, one hell of an accomplishment that no other nation can even come close to saying they'll upstage.
Without the shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope wouldn't be up there. Not just for the initial insertion (as it was carried, prepped and 'launched' from the cargo bay of Discovery during STS-25, but also for the Servicing Missions, which not only added fuel, they pushed the Hubble into a higher orbit (to correct for gravity and drag,) made repairs and added new modifications to make the Hubble Space Telescope the crown jewel of astronomy.
Without the Space Shuttle the International Space Station, as forlorn and underbuilt as it is now, would be nothing more than another dream on the boards, living only in the imagination of a few. Without the shuttle we wouldn't have made the progress we have. Without the shuttle, I wonder if very many people would really have any dreams of going into space today?
This space program, which cost a lot of money, no matter how you look at it, paid off in spinoff technology, increased understanding of our universe, our solar system and even our own planet. The money we invested in these efforts over the years is a mere pittance to the cost of the wars we fought, funded and participated in during the same period of time. Wars that ultimately cost us people, talent, economic well being and worldwide good will.
Even so, some of the technology we used in warfare was developed directly from the advances we made in our space programs. Cruise missles, GPS, advanced imaging, satellite observations and communications allowed us to become ever more accurate and precise in our weapons delivery. Materials developed increased our soldiers' ability to survive initial contact with their foes. Even the food that the soldiers carried into battlefield situations came as a spinoff result of attempting to package food for space.
The medical technology that was developed to maintain and monitor the health of the astronauts, exercise equipment and routines, as well as telemetry (long distance recording and monitoring) of their states of health was directly integrated into advanced medical treatments and diagnoses for the common man. Nutrition, measuring bone loss, radiation exposure (there's that to contend with in space as well at all times) and even psychological evaluations all benefitted from the space programs.
We also managed some really nice public relations and international relations by encouraging other nations that didn't have a space program of their own to submit astronauts for training, experiments to be conducted and to obtain greater exposure to cross cultural points of view. These astronauts from other countries have all had glowing comments for our space program and the shuttle. Of course, you'd expect that, but even so, I doubt the enthusiasm was ever feigned.
So, we now have one last chance to look up into the sky and see the last Shuttle orbiting in the night across our horizons. And, for someone like me, who's watched it all since the last Gemini capsule was launched (my dad was on the 'backup' recovery vessel for that, as well as for Apollo 5) I have a hard time seeing this without a little bit of a tear forming in the corner of my eye.
I am saddened by the country's overall lack of support for greater and more ambitious space exploration and exploitation plans. There is a void that is going to be in the hearts of many of us for years to come. There will be others out there, attempting to repeat what we have already done as a nation, but it just won't be the same.
The Ansari X-Prize was an uplifting moment when Spaceship One and the White Knight launched the first successful sub orbital flight of a civilian enterprise in space. Space isn't cheap. Space is dangerous, no matter how easy they make it look on Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek or any other number of space related shows over time.
Does that mean we shouldn't be attempting to conquer it's dangers? I say, "No." Look at what we got in terms of benefits from the first long term space program.
Your LCD screens, your computers (even inside your telephones,) the materials that make your tools lighter, stronger and still more durable to the elements, medical breakthroughs, materials science, recycling, filtration and purification methods -- all of these directly benefitted from the space program's focus on making space reachable.
Every ounce they shaved off materials, every article that could withstand the rigors of space, every thing they had to learn to keep people alive in a small closed loop environment for days on end made the space program work. All these things made life better here on earth, or at least provided us with the opportunity to capitalize on that to do so.
More than anything else, the space program generated something no other program has done before or since: It provided us a place to dream up the impossible; and then show the world that it's not impossible, just something a determined and inventive mind can do if there is the will to commit to it and succeed. It was the ultimate, "Can Do," achievement this world has seen. It gave people hope and faith that we can solve any problem if we set our will to it.
I bid a fond and tearful farewell to our shuttle system. It is tearful for two reasons. The first reason is that I don't see a replacement program waiting in the wings and so it makes me sad. The other is a tear of pride in an accomplishment that this country can still hold up to the rest of the world and say, "See, we can do this!"
I applaud all space efforts, from any country. Currently China, Japan, India and Iran all have active space programs in their beginning phases. Russia is still in the game, though at an extreme economic disadvantage now. And we have Americans, Canadians and folks in Great Britain and Australia all working at private space activities to get us riding into orbit and hopefully beyond.
My personal dream of working and living in space is done. It never got off the ground. That doesn't mean I have given up on it or think it's never going to happen. My role today may be different than what I had hoped, but I will still champion pushing the limits of our knowledge, our technical knowhow, science, and the spirit of exploration, adventure and pioneering the edge of our abilities. If there are young out there who wish it, I will bequeath the excitement, the enthusiasm and the desire to go there, not because it's easy or cheap, but because it's not.
I leave you with the words of John F. Kennedy, speaking at Rice University in 1962:
"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
(you can read the enire speech here: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/JFK-Speeches/Address-at-Rice-University-on-the-Nations-Space-Effort-September-12-1962.aspx )