13 July 2011

"Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among ..."

Wait. What are those things called again?

So, the July 4th holiday and a business trip to the west coast immediately following messed up my posting schedule, but now I'm back. However, today's post isn't so much about business. It's about a topic that is very near and dear to my heart and something I have hesitated to write about until now.

Last Friday, July 8th, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center for the last manned space flight for the foreseeable future. And I can't begin to convey how much this saddens me. Through a statement released by the White House, Obama's spin masters put a heck of a twirl on this seminal moment in American space flight:

"We’ll drive new advances in science and technology. We’ll enhance knowledge, education, innovation, and economic growth. And I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars." (Source: Statement by the President on the Launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis)

I can appreciate the enthusiasm and the positive message, but we have lost something with this decision to shutter the space shuttle program. I fear this choice to suspend space flight will serve as the first death knell for our stellar curiosity. That we, as Americans, will stop reaching for the stars.

In the 1960s, the space race was spurred by the Cold War: Russia beat us to it and that was unacceptable. Kennedy focused much of his short time in office on stressing the importance of getting a man on the moon. Nine years later, we did it. Sure, we haven't managed to travel to new galaxies or even put some people on Mars--yet. While Arthur C. Clarke and Jules Verne dreamed big things for us, the complexities of cost, technology and that pesky thing called distance, have kept us closer to home than they envisioned. But we were still trying, striving for something beyond ourselves, beyond Earth and its confines.

When we stop looking up, when we stop reaching for those stars, where will our focus go? Into more immediate (read: closer) issues? Obviously, there are a lot of things we could be paying more attention to: pollution, the environment, hunger, poverty ... but I still contest that the hope of reaching outside ourselves, of literally transcending these earthly concerns can do more for those efforts than hours of partisan rhetoric and podium thumping.

The space race of the 1960s and for most of the past three decades has been a uniting factor among the American people. Like your favorite team winning a world championship, people could hold up these accomplishments as something "we did." "Look how far we've come. Look what we can do when we put our minds to it, when we persevere, when we refuse to allow obstacles to stop us."

Admittedly, my view is romanticized. One of my favorite movies of the '80s was "Space Camp" (starring Kate Capshaw, Kelly Preston and Leah Thompson). I told my mother when I was eight that I wanted to be an astronaut. I vividly remember watching live as the Challenger turned into a stream of white smoke on the TV in my second grade classroom. I'm a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, in large part because through those books and authors' imaginations, I've already set foot on Mars, orbited the Earth in a space station and traveled at faster than light speeds to reach other galaxies. 

I understand that the space program is a huge drain on government finances and giving the current debt crisis, trimming some fat is probably a good idea. But I don't think space flight is fat, I think it's muscle fueled and strengthened by creativity and curiosity and the desire to know more than we do now. And I worry that once that muscle atrophies, rehabilitating it will be nearly impossible.

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