BOSTON (CBS) – For some, the only memory that filters through is Tang. Sad.
The final mission of the American space shuttle program signals the end of this nation’s most prodigious science project. There will likely be more manned space missions occurring at an accelerated pace now that NASA is having their final go at it. The very thought of a rocket blasting into the cosmos adorned with an Amazon.com or Virgin Airways logo in place of the United States flag leaves me with quite the queasy zero-gravity feeling.
If space is indeed the final frontier as young James T. Kirk said on more than one occasion (79 original season episode opening montages to be exact) then it appears we are ceding the human exploration of the heavens to billionaire businessmen with deep pockets and enormous egos and more than a few shifty foreign governments. How about the notion of our astronauts now needing to bum a ride with the Russians to visit the space station that we and our tax dollars pretty much built several thousand miles above the earth? And what happens when eventually the Hubble Telescope will suffer a cracked lens due to an errant asteroid pebble? With no deployable nationally-backed space craft ready at the pod bay door dear Hal, it is going to take longer to get things done up there. And who is going to guarantee the work?
Pardon me for lapsing into sentimental Americanism, but I would put our astronaut corps (the likes of Cooper, Shepard, Glenn, Armstrong, Musgrave, Ride, Kelly and any of the rest) up against anyone from anywhere in or out of pressure suits.
It must be a generational thing. When one grew up with signed pictures of astronauts on a bedroom wall, when ABC’s Jules Bergman was “The Man,” when you sweated out every liftoff and splashdown, when time seemed to stand still as you looked skyward in awe at the very thought of it, well it is rearview mirror time, a bygone era.
Over the last few decades, we have witnessed the extraordinary turn humdrum so quickly. Only when the worst happened and horrific disasters occurred did people stop to think about the space program and present further arguments that it just wasn’t worth it.
But do those arguments have merit? Many still say that the cost was and is too great. NASA represents nearly one percent of our obscenely out of control national budget. For that relatively small investment, we present for your dining and dancing pleasure Velcro. But there is so much more that we can thank our space explorers for such as life saving medicines, vital ecological research that is helping the planet today, an explosion of computers, cell phones, GPS systems and satellite TV. That is just part of the success story.
What we achieve as a culture and as a people as we head to the stars has as much merit as the numerous technological discoveries. It’s about having a national all-purpose goal, a challenging one for sure, and achieving success. Despite setbacks and trials, NASA has delivered like few governmental programs.
Back in the turbulent but exciting 1960’s, President Kennedy, borrowing from the great Everest explorer, offered up a simple yet powerful reason for America taking the lead in space. Because it is there. Space is definitely still very much there, as America is about to hand over the steering wheel to others. This is a time when we can really use more in the way of technological revolution, one that would put Americans to work and bring pride back to the nation.
John Masefield’s poem is worth quoting at a time like this.
“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky…and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
Our tall starships will soon be relegated to museum pieces. It would be a shame if after our brilliant work forging a path through space, America gets left behind.