Space shuttle, I hardly knew ye
If all goes according to plan, the Atlantis will become the last space shuttle to come screaming back through the atmosphere to land on the Earth’s surface. So, that’ll be that.
I remember when I heard that NASA was suspending human space flight and retiring the shuttle program. My rationality collided with my nostalgia. Yes, it is a lot of money to go into space and yes, that money could perhaps be better spent to develop unmanned technology, but…IT’S SPACE. It’s cool! How many people in the history of history get to say that they have looked down on the planet on which we live from the vacuum of space? How can we possibly take that away?
I was sort of obsessed with space when I was young. But, come on! How could I not be? The universe is bigger and badder and more amazing than anything. Why I was stuck on Earth was a mystery.
My room was decorated with a space theme. I had space wallpaper, astronaut posters and those little glow-in-the-dark stars. I made a banner to celebrate the moon landing. I made cardboard cutouts of all the U.S. manned spacecrafts. All of them. Even Skylab. I was hardcore.
I’m probably older than most people reading this. I was born during the Cold War. (Although, those last eight years were pretty uneventful. I never feared nuclear attack and my family didn’t have a bunker. Also, I harbor no irrational disdain for Russians.) Space travel has always been a point of national pride for me, often when I didn’t feel like there was much else to be proud of.
Space travel was always going to be a vicarious thrill. I’m horrible at math, have a slight fear of flying and heights and, when I travel I’m constantly battling motion sickness. Plus, I’m out of shape and don’t really like to exercise. I would have been the worst astronaut ever.
But that’s not really the point. I wasn’t exposed to Carl Sagan and the pale blue dot until much later, but I had figured it out on my own. And I believe that had a big influence on who I am today. The solar system is huge, the universe is even bigger, and we are – as far as we know – alone. We have nowhere else to go and no one else to call our friends. But that realization hasn’t made me a nihilist. It has added a sense of urgency; that I need to leave the world in better shape than I found it. It makes all petty bigotry seem especially not worth my time. In short, that realization that we are nothing but a piece of cosmic dust made me a hippie. Sans woo.
Now, space travel is almost commonplace. Has it lost its luster? I don’t know. Not for me. As I was watching Atlantis launch, I noticed some words of wisdom on my Twitter feed (because there is where we 21st century people get our wisdom). It said, and I paraphrase, not to mourn the passing of the space shuttle era, but instead mourn that there is not an era to take its place. That’s true, I think. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that space travel can inspire more than scientists and tech geeks. It inspired little girls from Kansas who grow up to be lawyers to be better human beings. And I’ll miss it.
Featured image credit: NASA