By Dave Coulter
Last Friday night we set up the telescope in the driveway. A warm summer night, the recent dry spell held the mosquitoes off as well as could be expected. The stars don’t really start to appear until after nine o’clock, so we passed the time, map in hand, observing features on the half-Moon, hanging low and clear in still-blue southwest sky.
Last Friday morning the space shuttle Atlantis took off on the last shuttle mission. On the radio earlier there were a few stories about this final launch, the end of this program. It’s a bittersweet moment for many people who will lose their jobs, who had great pride in their work. I’ll never live long enough to know, but I wonder if this event marks the end of the “American Half Century” - that span of time from the end of World War II to roughly 2008 when the bottom dropped out?
When I was a child the space program captivated me. The Gemini and Apollo launches caused everyone to pause to witness the moment, broadcasted live on all three networks. But if the space program of the 60’s was the Gold Medal at the Olympics the shuttle program of the last 30 years was the Chicago Cubs. Steady, but no excitement. We’d mourn the terrible accidents of course, but I’d wager that more people got excited by Voyager, Hubble, and Mars Rover missions than by the shuttle program.
But NASA was something Americans could be proud of, even when other aspects of our society left us disappointed and cynical. Sure, maybe there was some propaganda peppered in but didn’t it make us feel like we could do what we set out minds to? And that’s what hung in my mind Friday, that maybe the United States says it is only closing one chapter, but maybe it’s putting the entire book back on the shelf.
It crossed my mind that the shuttles flew for 30 years - how come we never upgraded them the way we do cars or computers? (Oh, I’m sure there were many improvements along the way - I’m not being critical) Maybe this is as good as it could get? I have no doubt that a new vehicle was needed, but I wonder now if it is likely to be built? These things take a rare combination of momentum, money, and political will. I just don’t see these stars lining up in this country anytime soon.
Let’s face it - we live in a different world today. The very tools that the space program helped to develop show how many aspects of the global environment now deteriorate. Perhaps it is time to focus out attention closer to home. It will be like a stay-cation. Oh sure, we’ll pop off the occasional robot to chase an asteroid for fun, and we’ll hopefully be able to afford to keep our military and communications satellites humming along.
But for now, I think Major Tom has clipped wings.
From the suburbs of Chicago one can see through the lens of a modest telescope craters, mountain ranges, and even individual peaks on the Moon. Our little neighbor in the sky is amazing and beautiful, but it is devoid of life. I’m told there are some American flags plunked in the dusty soil up there. Only time will tell if that was our high water mark.