I watched the ultimate space shuttle launch yesterday morning on my iPad, a device that even three years ago would have been considered science fiction. The prototype space shuttle was named Enterprise, after the starship that once graced the big and small screen. Gene Roddenberry envisioned a future free of bigotry and poverty, where not only were all men created equal, but all interstellar sentient species as well. “Star Trek” featured devices not unlike iPads, seemingly centuries away — yet here we are today. And the shuttlecraft seen in that show in the 1960s most likely inspired some engineer to design his own version of a reusable space ship. The future is here today, for those willing to dream.
I am 36-years-old, and I firmly believe I will not see another manned, US-sponsored spacecraft launch in my lifetime. And before you give me the party line about private enterprise doing a better job than the government ever could, allow me to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson who wrote, “Commercial Space Flight will not advance the space frontier, but enable cheaper access to where we’ve already been.” Yes, I would leap at the opportunity to ride in that Virgin space ship and experience weightlessness, if for no other reason than I cannot think of an easier diet program. However, on behalf of mankind: Been there; done that. What’s next?
It cannot be called exploration if we’ve already been there.
We will once again set foot on the moon. And we will one day reach the surface of Mars with something other than a remote control car with a REALLY good antenna. But I’ll be long dead before those things happen. It is worth noting the conquest of space is about more than exploration. Even though we were bitter rivals, the space race between the US and the USSR brought humanity together in ways never thought possible. Brave men (and eventually women) journeyed beyond our atmosphere while the entire world watched breathlessly. From those early missions to the shuttles. From Russia’s Mir space station to the ISS. Again, quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Other than the waging of War, the ISS is the most successful collaboration of nations there ever was.” The dream of space connected us.
Our government no longer recognizes the importance of dreams. During the Great Depression, the government funded everything from highways (at a time when they were seen as frivolous — worse than a bridge to nowhere, more like dozens of bridges to nowhere) to theater troops (because we had this silly notion that art inspired people). In the Kennedy Era, we got over our Cold War fears by committing funds and resources to the task of sending a man to the moon. In the post-Bush/Obama era, the money is apparently better spent bailing out Big Oil and bankers.
To be honest, I cannot remember all of the shuttle launches. I cannot remember the first time I saw a launch. I can recall — however — sitting in my classroom as a child when the teacher turned on the TV so we could watch ANOTHER launch. I can recall how mundane the whole thing had become; even as 12-year-olds, the tediousness had overwhelmed and jaded us. But then somebody said, “Go with throttle-up,” and the Challenger was gone forever. The deaths of seven people reminded us that no aspect of space exploration should ever be thought of as mundane or tedious. Life has jaded me in other ways, but I’ll always remember the astronauts with fondness and respect, without cynicism. And I never took another shuttle launch for granted.
I’ve read and heard a lot of interviews of former astronauts, and not one of them was unchanged by the experience of space exploration. To borrow the phrase from Butch Cassidy, those people had vision while the rest of the world wore bifocals. Many fail to see the point of space travel. Three decades later, the point of the shuttle program seems to have been that we achieved more through teamwork than we ever could have without it. Or maybe the point was that every time mankind slips the surly bonds of Earth, we are reminded of how amazing this species can be. Or maybe the point was that Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion were enough to get that job done (literally — those laws were all it took to get mankind off the ground and safely back again). Or maybe, to paraphrase J. Michael Straczynski, the point is that one day — whether 100 years from now or a million years from now — our sun will grow cold and die, and when that time comes, if we haven’t set sail for planets beyond, all that humanity is or was will die right along with it. So maybe the point is that we owe it to Shakespeare, John Lennon, Audrey Hepburn, Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln to do whatever we can to preserve their accomplishments.
In the end, the aforementioned Shakespeare said it best, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We don’t know what the point of shuttle missions is yet, just as nobody in Shakespeare’s time could possibly have grasped how much influence his words would have centuries after they were penned. It may take generations for their import to be genuinely understood. Clearly, they have the potential to be a jumping off point — but to what? That remains to be seen.
For now, we have a dozen more days of a US led mission into space. Maybe their specific experiments hold no personal interest for you. Maybe the shuttle itself seemed like a relic of an earlier time. But don’t discount the inspiration the last three decades offered to those who opened their minds and hearts. Yes, the Russians were the first to send a man into space, but it took the United States to not only ask “What’s next?” but also work out the answer. In point of fact, they provided repeated answers.
I put the challenge out there to my friends with children, to my former students, and to anyone younger than I am: The future sinks or swims with you. My generation is busy fighting wars and idiot-proofing the planet. It is up to you to push through all of that, to challenge yourselves to rise above our collective stupidity and short-sightedness. More than anything, it is up to you to dream.