Much has been written this week about the demise of the space shuttle program - and what some see as a lack of vision for the future of the space program in the United States. Since the
was cancelled, fans of space exploration (count me in) are worried that our country is about to lose leadership to the space ambitions of other countries (perhaps a potent symbol of where the United States is going on several fronts).
Over thirty years ago, I remember lying in bed one day (I was home sick from school) watching the first in-atmosphere tests of the Enterprise
(you know, the shuttle that never shuttled). I was just five when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, and remembered that space highpoint only in the fleeting way
memories happen at that age.
But the space shuttle was MY space program - I watched the first launch, took a tour of Cape Kennedy just a couple of days before one of the early launches of Columbia, saw the Challenger disaster live on TV, watched the rebirth of the program, marveled at the launch and repair of the Hubble telescope. The promise of space was wide open - moon bases, trips to Mars, a real space station like the one in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Of course, the reality of modern space travel was something different than the promises made in books and films - we never returned to the moon, Mars still is unsullied by a human footprint, and the International Space Station doesn't have a swinging lounge and stewardesses with
mushroom cap hats.
But if we adjust the vision of what space travel is about, what did come out of the program was just as exciting in a way, though maybe not quite so Hollywood.
The ISS is a truly magnificent machine, the culmination of work by the best minds and hands that several countries have to offer. The Hubble telescope has opened our eyes to an astounding (color-enhanced) universe, giving us more information about the endless space around us than the moon walks ever did. And we learned much about what it takes to have a real human presence in space - baby steps, to be sure, but still as necessary as the first trips early humans took in crude boats beyond the comfortable horizon many years ago.
So is it really all over? Have we traded our interstellar dreams for Jersey Shore reruns?
For the sake of our country and the concept of dreaming in general, I hope not. We need a space program. But maybe it is once again time to re-think what we are going to achieve in space, much like we did after the Apollo program ended.
The process of lifting payloads or even people into space is at the point where it is routine - satellites are launched all the time, and most non-space geeks are not even aware when astronauts are lifted to the space station or returned to earth. NASA is encouraging several private companies - XCOR
and others to create the next generation of launch vehicles, cheaper and more efficient than the behemoth rockets used now. These efforts are well
beyond the blueprint stage - some prototypes have already been tested.
Such outsourcing (and let's be honest, hasn't the space program always relied on private companies for their technology?) should help NASA to think about some of the bigger plans in the future - maybe building that moon base, a mission to an asteroid, exploring the sun.
We have already proven that we can build great spaceships. And through sacrifice and engineering, we have learned how to make them safer.
Now it is time to move ahead. No, we don't have a map of where the program is going, and that is sad. But I believe there is as much promise and possibility as there ever was, and as a country we need to think about where we want to go and the best way to get there. I hope we do.