Sunday, September 4, 2011

Farewell to the Space Shuttle Era

by silvermom

Thank you Mr. Kennedy, for guiding the way to the moon.  Even if a rivalry with the Soviet Union brought those three Americans aboard Apollo 11 to the Sea of Tranquility, the lunar landing was a feat like no other.   It opened the gates for space and lunar travel.  Perhaps most significantly, it opened our minds to the science grazing ground beyond our own.  On Thursday, July 20th, we welcomed home Atlantis. Like its namesake in the sea, Atlantis will be still forever: as a museum piece at the Kennedy space center.

I was never into rockets, planes, or asteroids as a kid, but I did romanticize the heavens.  The stars and the moon were twinkling, shiny things to wish upon and be dazzled by.  When I was four or five years old, I decided that the moon is a hole that God peered through to watch me sleep.  No science there, no religion even, just a kid's fantastic imagination.

I'm no rocket scientist, but it doesn't take one to be in awe of the grandeur of vast outer space.  The question "is there life on Mars?" barely scrapes the surface. What is life? Is it based on DNA as we define here on earth: four nucleobases in Watson-Crick pairs dangling from sugary phosphate backbones? Do we measure it by oxygen needs and water consumption? What if other life forms thrive on sustenance alien to earth?  As we peel back the question, layer by incredible layer, we are just beginning to understand how much we don't know. And our collective sense of marvel increases exponentially.

With the end of the American space shuttle era, I wonder what's in the future for NASA.  Will our children remember this year as the end of the organization that took the fiction out of science fiction? Will their history books talk about how it yielded to the power of Washington's ever reddening ledger?  Sure, there were flaws to the shuttle program.  I would be remiss not to mention the immense tragedies of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.  But there are these success stories:  the Hubble Space Telescope launched from Discovery gives us a glimpse of other galaxies, the unimaginable beauty of the aurora around Saturn's magnetic pole, and the revelation of a stellar nursery where new stars are born; the International Space Station which harbors a laboratory in space! Perhaps most amazing is that the Space Station is International, a collaboration of five space-faring countries. Its construction and maintenance is as much a marvel of diplomacy as technology.

The people who had flown on the shuttle came from many backgrounds, races, and nationalities. NASA records that 369 individuals had flown on the five shuttles, and that the shuttles carried astronauts from 16 different countries.  And there above earth, this diverse and intelligent group worked together speaking a language common to them – Space science.  In fact, there were actually Jews in Space! Although, I seriously doubt that these Jewish astronauts took their cue from Mel Brooks when they decided to bring their Torah and Mezuzah to space.  My favorite story is of astronaut David Wolf who went on a mission during Hannukah.  Since he couldn’t light his hannukiah in such a combustible environment, he brought and spun his dreidel in space instead.  Now that’s taking advantage of zero gravity!
No, I don't believe that Atlantis’ “wheels stop” marks the end of NASA. Budget permitting, a rocket will launch again.  But unfortunately, the economic reality of our times has grounded the shuttle that, for my generation at least, will always be the image of space travel.  In order to build new spaceships that can go farther and deeper in space, the shuttle program is sadly forfeited.  Until the completion of Orion, planned for 2016, the government will use private companies to ferry cargo into space, and possibly take a shot at space tourism - an off-putting idea if you ask me, but that's another story.

I don't know if I will live to see the discovery of new species in foreign universe, perhaps living in toxic-to-human fumes, but here's to hoping for better times ahead so that my daughter might witness it.  In a few years, I will take her to the planetarium, show her the beautiful pictures taken by the Hubble, and perhaps visit the taxidermized Atlantis in Florida.  Who knows? She might even become a rocket scientist when she grows up.

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