So I’m driving to work, as usual, remarking to myself how goddamned many of us there are, as usual, and NPR starts in about the Shuttle landing. My first thought was, “Whew, they made it”, but the next was, “Oh, shit. That’s it.” When I heard the shuttle Commander, Chris Ferguson, speaking about it being the final mission, my eyes watered.
It took me by surprise. Not that this was the last mission, but how hard it hit me… That was it. It’s over. Our space program.
Let’s put aside the fact I write Sci-Fi, if we can. I was born in 1973, the epitome of American confidence in space. We had landed on the moon, several times by then. Space had not been conquered, but we saw it was possible to cross it. If we could go to the moon, we could go farther. By 1976, the Viking probes had already sampled Martian soil, and in 1977, the Voyager probes began their journey which would carry them past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and beyond.
The shuttle was a continuation of the promise that we would continue to pioneer, to explore, to experience the marvels of a greater universe beyond our thin veil of atmosphere. More so, it was a promise that such experiences would someday become not routine, but accessible to each of us.
I grew up with this idea so firmly rooted in my child’s mind that it seemed a matter of course the process would continue. I had a mural of Columbia on my wall when I was eight years old. The future was a beautiful, high technology place, and I couldn’t wait to see it.
When we look back at the things the shuttle made possible, we find the satellites of vast telecommunications networks, we find every module in the International Space Station, we find advances in research only possible in zero gravity, we find the Hubble Space Telescope. Is that all? No, we find the courage required to strap onto over 380,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and ride a pillar of flame hot enough to boil iron. We find a will greater than self-preservation which urges the best of us to risk all in the pursuit of something greater.
With the promise in my young head, I soaked up Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost In Space, Space 1999, every corny show that offered a glimpse into that high tech future I couldn’t wait to see. As I got older, I learned the difference between possible and fantasy; and far from being a disappointment, once I understood what could truly be accomplished in my lifetime, I was smitten all the more.
1986 brought a tragedy the whole world felt, but we Americans, we were devastated by the Challenger disaster. Before that January morning, the superiority of American to Soviet engineering was understood, practically a given in the realm of space, until a forked cloud stretched over Florida sky. Forcefully, violently, we confronted how the very best of us could fail. I was twelve. And I watched it happen live.
The program was torn down under extensive scrutiny then rebuilt so well, it provided seventeen years of safe launches and landings. Endeavor, Columbia, Atlantis, and Discovery carried on for their fallen sister. Seventeen years. On top of the five already served. Twenty two years. For Orbiters designed to serve ten.
My brother said the Shuttle program was doomed ten years ago, and he’s right. The Shuttle, just like every great piece of space faring hardware, was representative of a time. She was supposed to have a successor, an heir to take the reins who would allow her to retire in dignity, grace, and honor. But where is the next generation?
Like stalwart soldiers, the shuttles endured far past their intended lifespans. As tough as the orbiters, their crews made do with less, grunted through the cuts. But Columbia, she didn’t make it. And I remember the confused radio braodcasts as the announcer tried to make sense of the multiple streaks of debris reentering the atmosphere. Not again, the child said, not again.
Again, the best minds analyzed the remains, understood what happened and made damn sure it would never happen again. And with Atlantis’s safe arrival home today, they did good.
What now? There’s no inheritor of the great legacy. There’s nothing to look forward to. The layoffs are already announced. It just fucking ends?
The space program matters to me in a way I can’t express without harsh, passionate words. And to think that now our astronauts have to hitch a ride in Soviet-era capsules…
We’ve lost something essential. I didn’t understand until right now that (for me) it’s hope. For better times, better future, for something noble. Something inspiring.
What do we have now? The muck we’re all mired in. Corporations. Greed. Pollution. Petty hatreds and religious violence. Scarcity. Competition. Bickering politicians. And a planet the staggers under the burden of too many mouths to feed. THAT’S why I cried when I heard the shuttle commander thank Atlantis for bringing everyone home safe.
Some things are too important to let slip away. And I’m as guilty as anyone because I had to wait ’til it was gone to understand the loss. What will we do? Hand it all over to the Chinese? Farm our work to the European Space Agency? Just hand it over? Everything we struggled for and earned with devotion, care, and diligence?
There are some things I don’t want to live without. Some things are too important to let slip. I’m willing to pay for them.
Raise my taxes, for fuck’s sake.