As NASA’s last shuttle lands for the last time never again to slip the bonds of earth and try to touch the face of God, as so often said, only to become museum pieces now, many wonder if we have lost something more. And no not in the thousands of pinks slips, NASA workers now flooding into the market looking for jobs, arguably at the worst possible time, not even so much in the lack of knowledge of what is to come, what will be NASA’s next great chapter, but in what we know we have certainly given up without something to replace it, the inevitable next logical step for spaceflight to take. The privatization of space missions for profit launched by, millionaires, billionaires, business tycoons willing to offer the delights of space to their fellow social set however seems to be what’s on the horizon, giving those who can afford it a glimpse of our world from a totally different view. Though it seems like capitalist greed, the worst of America, the western world may come to be displayed in essentially buying, selling chunks of outer space, in such stark contrast to buying a star to name it after a girlfriend, a beloved son or dear friend, us feeling like we had a piece of the universe, were connected to the mystery. Who’s right, those mourning what was or excited about what could be, and is it truly a case of only time will tell, something only future generations will see?
While the shuttles become part of a bygone era, NASA is certainly not totally closing its doors; there will still be research and development, telescopes, probes and the ongoing mission to Mars project and probably a hundred other things not yet known to the public however without government involvement, without it being viewed as a priority individuals leaving NASA, ones having followed them for decades wonder if we, Americans will ever return to the heart of what NASA always was, what the remnants still are, exploration; will we ever go into space to increase our knowledge, curious to find what is out there, answer questions about our own beginnings, the vast expanse in which we live, of which we have seen only a fraction, or will it now be relegated to something bored people with too much money do because they have already done everything else? Now amidst our modern times it appears we have more important things to worry about, to consume our time, more immediate focuses for our attention; debt, global security, environmental stability, giving the same or better to our children and grandchildren as far as breathable air, clean water, flowers, birds, a planet retaining the ability to grow food, support life. Just getting by swallows up so much of who we are, what we do, how we live, and that treadmill has come to weigh on our leaders too it seems. Busy trying to fund basic education, feeling forced to cut Medicare, aid to the needy just to pay the nations bills, space pales in importance unless it’s falling in on us.
Pondering this I feel we have lost the great spirit of exploration sparked by JFK making speeches about the moon at a time when no one had any idea how we would get there, I have seen played so many times for movie clips or anniversary markers of great and memorable moments in history. Sally Ride was a name on a picture book in my elementary school, the Challenger something understood in receding quality film clips years after, Columbia overshadowed by bigger headlines on the news or in my life. Actual headlines going from moon landing to redundant refills of the international space station in 30 years, every flub captured, blurry lenses of Hubble put on backwards, crash-landing an expensive Mars probe because engineers mixed up inches and feet. Reality shows centered around science, legend and mystery, endeavoring to prove or disprove everything from viewer video to the existence of, say, the Holy grail, putting forth doubt, the idea that perhaps the moon landing was faked, that even video that old isn’t so grainy and some huffing and puffing about NASA’s claim to have lost all the footage. Space has instead again become the realm of the science fiction writer to dream up new ways on old spins to get us there, to tell what races and species explorers found on their travels to somewhere far, far away, people happy to have a fantasy play out before them, too preoccupied by life to speculate on the stars, at least the ones in the sky.
Consequently politicians and public alike quickly forget that marvelous pictures from the far off regions of space, via instruments like Hubble, the finding of fossilized water droplets on Mars through a probe, do more than feed a soul in times when it’s better to feed families. They have the potential to solve the problems right here on earth; creating viable colonies on Mars even the moon could provide a partial answer to our global population problem. The fact that those droplets were found could mean there was once some form of life on Mars, not necessarily little green men, but something and there could be again with enough time and research. A hundred years from now we could very easily find cures for diseases that can only be grown in a recreated environment returning Mars to what it was in a prehistoric age, provide energy solutions, and that’s one planet; consider the other 7, the possibilities, the discoveries. Closer studies of planets could very well add elements to the periodic table, reveal materials to neutralize radiation, nuclear bombs; we don’t know, yet. But as long held science fiction scenarios, technology akin to Star Trek are seemingly in more tangible reach on earth, computers get smaller and smaller doing things 20 years ago only the most forward thinking ever could have thought they would, becoming a growing fixture in the home doing everything from starting your coffee maker to ordering your groceries, as i- pads shockingly mimic the data pads always seen in someone’s hand on Star Trek, later franchises like Deep Space 9, Voyager we seem less and less interested in what probably really is a final frontier, no matter how corny and overused the phrase.
Had officials been given freedom and a budget to spend some time before the retiring of the current space shuttle fleet considering the next generation of said craft, models going farther, faster, models supporting more than a survivalist experience while in space, solving issues such as the prolonged effect of weightlessness, space travel and exploration could become a career people living significant portions of their lives on ships and loving it sooner rather than later. It’s bigger than the potential to turn the moon, Mars or anywhere into a penal colony, offload people onto other planets, export them into space to alleviate overcrowding; it’s about a kid looking up at the stars wanting to know what’s out there and being able to answer at least a fraction of that question with an exploration experience. Currently NASA stands somewhat directionless; they have given thousands of workers pink slips as opposed to setting new goals, trying for an engine earthbound or otherwise capable of going light speed, never mind beyond, ships able to reach other planets in a year vs. 3, 4, 5, probes equipped to reach past our galaxy in an expanse of time shorter than a lifetime or two. Capacities which should be pushed, concepts which should be tried or foundations of the intermediate steps put in place so those goals are attainable in 200 years not 1,000.
By no means do changes at NASA indicate described projects, in the above two paragraphs, won’t someday be brought to life, someone won’t attempt them, that curiosity is doomed; however, turning it over to the private sector means a delay in projects for the “greater good,” the whole, while they focus first on a tourism market. Business moguls with billions have produced the first “flying car” a- la The Jetson’s, cleared for both road and air travel, bulky and looking highly out of place though it is, to say nothing of expensive, impractical, yes. New designs of commercial space vehicles are in the works and paid space tours are on track to begin between 2012 and 2014, yes; space travel will go on, just not the same way. Price of progress concede many while still remembering a time when motivations were different, purer, when there was an innocence about going into space, an adventure to conquer not just another commodity to conquer for profit first, everything else second. And in retiring the shuttle fleet as they have, they have retired the best of something in all of us.
A great article. The spin off effects of ongoing space exploration and involvement may only bear fruit years up the road. Science for the sake of scientific exploration often yeilds unexpected payoffs in the future.