It was a nostalgic moment to say the least. As I watched Atlantis rocket off into space for the last time I could recall seeing similar launches throughout my life. Of course I remembered being a young boy, not much older than my two sons, and witnessing Challenger explode live on that cold January day in 1986 with all of my fellow 2nd grade classmates. I remember how my teacher, who was unsure as to how we might react, quickly turned the television off and diverted our attention to something else. But as all parents know, kids aren't stupid. We all knew that we had seen first-hand something amazing, tragic, and dare I say special. We saw, as President Ronald Reagan stated later that night, seven heroes who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Despite the Challenger tragedy, Americans (of all ages) were united in our commitment to expand our knowledge of the universe. We were determined to not let the loss of Challenger deter us from our exploration of the final frontier.
Fast forward seventeen years (almost to the day). I remember returning home one weekend from college to visit family and watching with my Dad (who would pass away 4 days later) the news coverage of the Shuttle Columbia disaster. Of course the comparisons with the Challenger explosion were only natural but something was different about Columbia. It seemed as though Americans were indifferent to NASA's "other seven" who had perished upon their reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Perhaps it was the fact that Challenger was a more dramatic tragedy than Columbia. After all, Columbia didn't explode before our very eyes.
Or perhaps there is another reason for our apparent national disinterest in Columbia's disaster.
Over the years, Americans have begun to see space travel as routine. Whether it be shuttle launches, satellites being put into orbit or space stations being constructed, humanity's incredible adventure into the vastness of space has lost its luster. Since the end of the Apollo program, Americans have been less interested in funding space exploration and have even argued that such a program is pointless, since our nearest heavenly neighbors (the moon, Mars, etc.) hold little hope for long term human colonization. And it doesn't look like this sentiment will change anytime soon. In a recent GOP presidential debate, virtually all of the candidates were unanimous in their position that NASA should receive less funding. With such an apathetic view towards one of the most incredible achievements of humanity, it is any wonder why the Columbia disaster is often held in less regard than the Challenger explosion? Have we lost our nerve/interest in exploring the final frontier?
Now fast forward to last Friday, as the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final trip into the heavens. How many Americans are even aware that the space shuttle program is now over? How many Americans care? As NASA Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly stated: "I'm not sure so many Americans actually know that we're not going to have a human space flight program for a while...nor do I think many care". Sadly, Commander Kelly is probably right. As long as we have our iPads, smart phones, GPS systems, and On Demand television we don't care.
But just where do people think we get all those cool gadgets?
Politicians say we cannot afford to fund NASA the way we used to, due to all of our economic issues; I say we cannot afford to NOT fund NASA more now than ever.
Americans seem to regard space flight as routine and lackluster; I say there is nothing routine about breaching the confines of Earth.
The powers that be seem to find nothing of value in our continued exploration of the heavens; I say that the thing of most value is to venture into the vastness of the unknown and to take a step into the darkness. As President John F. Kennedy stated when posing the challenge of landing a man on the moon:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.There is no doubt that the continued exploration of the heavens will require great sacrifice of both wealth and manpower. It will require patience, sacrifice, bravery and fortitude. Yes, more astronauts will be lost in the process and more children will see first-hand the unfortunate consequences of human exploration, but is there a greater lesson to be learned? Would we not prefer to have our children emulating people like Neil Armstrong, Christa McAuliffe and John Glenn instead of Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore? Shouldn't our goals be to land a man/woman on Mars instead of becoming the winner of American Idol or Next Top Model?
We reap what we sow.
As the Space Shuttle program comes to a conclusion I hope it will mark the beginning of greater things to come. When Apollo ended it was replaced with the Shuttle, and now we must ask ourselves what will replace the shuttle. Do we replace the shuttle with something greater or do we just let it rust in a museum as a relic of days gone by? Do we choose to break the shackles of self-imposed security and go deeper into God's playground, or are we content to simply send communication satellites into orbit while remaining "safe" here on the confines of Earth? Do we honor the brave men and women of Challenger, Columbia and the space program in general by daring to venture further into the heavens or by simply stating that we can't afford it any longer?
If we value progress, if we value leaning, if we value humanity, then we cannot permit the conclusion of the Shuttle Program to mark the end (whether permanent or temporary) to human exploration. We must resist the climate of complacency that infects us today and choose to sail the infinite seas of space. As Christopher Columbus aptly put it over 500 years ago: "You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore."
In conclusion, I leave you with some of the words from the men of the Apollo program, who best understand the importance of humanity's further exploration of space:
"I had the earth in my window and all I wanted to do was keep going."
"The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me - a small disk, 240,000 miles away...Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance. Only the perfection of God's hand"
- Frank Borman
"If somebody said before the flight, 'Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?' I would have say, 'No, no way.' But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried."
- Alan Shepard
"The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful from space. Maybe we can make it that way — the way God intended it to be — by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space."
- Roger B Chaffee
"From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. It wasn't a miracle, we just decided to go."
- Jim Lovell
"We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way."
- Buzz Aldrin
"The important achievement of Apollo was demonstrating that humanity is not forever chained to this planet and our visions go rather further than that and our opportunities are unlimited."