In the predawn hours Atlantis returned home from space for the last time, safely bringing her crew of four back and ending the space shuttle program.
All things must end; that I understand. But I have a hard time seeing this as a happy ending, for I see now an excuse to end the American space program, not a reason to move ahead.
James Lileks sums up well how I feel:
NASA is keen to tell you there’s a still a future for sending Americans into space, but there’s a general cultural anomie that seems content to watch movies about people in space, but indifferent to any plans to put them there. This makes me grind my teeth down to the roots, but I suppose that’s a standard reaction when the rest of your fellow citizenry doesn’t share the precise and exact parameters of your interests and concerns. That’s the problem when you grow up with magazines telling you where we’re going after the moon, with grade-school notebooks that had pictures of the space stations to come, when the push to Mars was regarded as an inevitable next step.
Just got hung up on the “why?” part, it seems. Also the “how” and the “how much” and other details. I can see the reason for taking our time – develop new engines, perfect technology, gather the money and the will. It’s not like anything’s going anywhere. But it’s not like we’re going anywhere if we’re not going anywhere, either – when nations, cultures stop exploring, it’s a bad sign. You’re ceding the future. If you have a long view that regards nation-states as quaint relics of a time in human history when maps had lines – really, you can’t see them from space! We’re all one, you know – then it doesn’t matter whether China or the US puts a flag on Mars. It’s possible a Chinese Mars expedition would commemorate the first boot on red soil with a statement that spoke for everyone on the planet, not a particular culture or nation. It’s possible. But history would remember that they chose to go, and we chose not to.
So what’s the attachment, really? Childhood attachment to Star Trek fantasies, geeky fascination with spaceships, adolescent marination in sci-fi visions of rockets and moon bases and PanAm shuttles engaged in a sun-bathed ballet with a space station revolving to the strains of Strauss, phasers and warp six and technobabble and the love of great serene machinery knifing through clouds of glowing dust? Probably. It’s not over, I know – but it’s like watching the last of Columbus’ ships return, and learning they’re cutting up the mast for firewood, and no one’s planning to go back any time soon. At first you look at the ocean and imagine what’s out there, because that’s what you’ve been doing all your life – and then you lean to stop wondering, because it reminds you of the day you saw the last ship leave.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi... Thus passes the glory of the world.