The Final Frontier

This post was published more than a few years ago (on 2009-07-17) and may contain inaccurate technical information, outmoded thoughts, or cringe takes. Proceed at your own risk.

I’ve always been interested in the space program. The Shuttle program started just a couple of years after I was born. I remember being awed by Skylab… and being crushed by the Challenger disaster. I felt for sure that I was growing up in a world that was heading toward making the universe I saw in Star Trek reruns a reality. We would enter space on a massive scale, and in my lifetime, I would travel to another world.

As I got older, and understood the complexities of space travel, I revised my estimate. Maybe not within my lifetime. But we were still making slow, steady progress. The Shuttle was going on routine missions. We were learning more and more about space, and what was needed to go further into our galaxy.

Or so I thought.

I thought the ISS would be the first step in learning to live in space that would lead us to an outpost on the Moon; and then, to Mars. But then, the Columbia disaster. And soon, the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. Yes, Orion is on the horizon, but too far out for anyone to get excited about it. Not that anyone gets excited about space exploration anymore. And the design of Orion looks just like the Apollo capsules— are we going backwards?

I feel like the public views it as a fad. Something unnecessary. Not the important step in the betterment of humanity that it was impressed upon me as when I was a child. I find it hard to see it from their point of view. This is something critical to our species’ survival. Eventually, we’ll need to get off this rock for one reason or another. Isn’t the thrill of exploration enough to compel us to do so sooner rather than later?

I fully admit I’m more invested in the space program than most Americans. I’ve had greater emotional highs and deeper lows tracking the course of NASA’s progress over the years than from nearly any other world events. As we approach Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary, I’ve been listening to the re-broadcast of the NASA radio transmissions at We Choose the Moon, and I have to say it’s gotten a little dusty in here as I step back and relive a moment that happened nearly six years before I was born, just thinking of the amazing achievement that we made. We did that. Humans. Us. Something that inspired the world to look into space and consider venturing out into a universe much larger than our tiny planet. That excited thousands of young boys and girls to become pilots and engineers and computer scientists.

And what did we do with that excitement? I fear that we squandered it. We turned this spectacular event that brought the world together for a moment or two into a mere series of spin-offs. Tang and freeze-dried ice cream and computers and streamlined cars and better winter tires and handicapped driver systems and marine safety equipment and better housing insulation and thermal cameras for firefighters and medical advances and video stabilization software and biodegradable lubricants and better artificial heart technology and— Hey, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought! Am I the only one excited about this? Sure, spin-offs are just icing on an admittedly very expensive cake, but what better way to find solutions to our more common problems than to push ourselves to do something new and nearly impossible?

We’ve made more advances in the last hundred years than ever before in human history. All of that was driven by man’s urge to explore, and fueled by man’s discovery of flight. Why stop now? What makes us think we’ve seen everything we need to see, and that space isn’t worth putting in the effort?

As I write this, I see that Congress is considering plans to extend the shuttle life up until the Orion vehicles are ready to go. I applaud this move, and encourage them to continue. Yes, we need a new vehicle designed with modern technology— after all, we’ve made a lot of advances in computing in the last thirty-five years. I hope that along with that, somehow we can recapture the wide-eyed enthusiasm that we once had. A fresh view. A new chance for humanity to prove that we’re not a generally uncaring, celebrity-obsessed mass of media and resource consumers, but that we can come together as one and press out into the dark, finding new hope in the outer reaches of space.

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