Several years ago my sister and I were taking a walk at night. The sun had just gone down and the starts were shining bright. As I was looking into the sky (as I always do) I caught a shooting star. "I missed it," she complained. "That's because..." I reminded her "You were looking down."
The last shuttle flight is set to take place this Friday, and as the era of NASA's great shuttle flights comes to a close, I want to share my thoughts about the last 30 years and reflect on a culture which has learned to settle for much less while paying for and expecting much more.
For those of you who know me well, you know that I am a NASA historian and enthusiast. Since I watched Apollo ll launch into the sky in 1969 and turned to ask my mom "Where are they going?" and she replied "They're flying to the moon, they're going to walk on it" I was hooked! That was the beginning - and indeed the beginning of the end in my opinion - of America's dominance, and our species' greatest achievement of the spirit. Because when we sent men to the moon it was the culmination of a million or more years of dreaming of it. In April of 1981 I sat in my father's New York apartment and watched that first launch live, cheering, jumping up and down, and saluting America's great leap forward in technology and spirit. I watched the landing 3 days later.
In the early 1970's when we had grown tired of the awesome and near impossible task of moon landings, NASA proposed a new vision: Mars. To get to Mars, we would need to launch from orbit, thus we would need a space station. To create a space station, we would need a shuttle to build it. And the Space Transportation System (Space Shuttle) was born. Intended to be as regular as airplane flight, just as safe, and cheap to operate, the shuttle turned out to be none of those, and this horse designed by committee became a funnel for money, initiative, and imagination from which no inspiration would flow.
Indeed the shuttle was a distraction from what is possible for human beings - progress. Yes it built the space station, yes it launched and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, yes it kept the space program going after an extremely successful series of Apollo missions. But it didn't do the one thing it was supposed to do aside from it's function: Inspire.
Anyone who has seen a launch of the shuttle (like I have) will tell you it is truly an awesome thing to witness. The sound alone is massive, sending shock waves through your chest. The astronauts who have flown aboard any one of the five shuttles put in service will tell you that it is the most complex, amazing vehicle ever built - "A smooth ride" as John Glenn put it. The countless employees, engineers, and crews who designed, built, serviced, and refurbished the fleet will tell you that each shuttle was a thrill to work with. All of that it true. But at the end of the day - 30 years after the first launch - we are going back to the original designs we used 40 years ago, the capsule, to usher us into our next phase of space travel.
So why am I trashing something that has held my attention for 30 years? Why am I criticizing the very vehicle I support year after year? Because we could have done better and we didn't.
In my opinion America (and to a certain extent our species) pinnacled with the moon landings. The greatest achievement in the history of history was realized within 8 years of its mandate. John F. Kennedy pointed up and we all looked. No one questioned the decision, no one fought it, we all stood together and made it happen. When one of the moon walkers returned from his experience he said "Now what?" He, like his other 11 fellow astronauts who stood up there, realized that after walking on the moon, there really was nothing that could possibly top it ever! And perhaps they were right.
And so President Nixon approved the space shuttle program to put us on a heading for Mars - a much riskier, much more difficult goal to accomplish. But after the moon... now what, right?
But Mars - if we ever even get there - will not hold the same fascination. Its too far away and there's really nothing for us to do there, other than say we're here!
So why did we go to the moon? Why did we build the space shuttle? Why the space station and the Hubble telescope? Why do we continue to pour countless billions into a program that sees humans simply orbiting the earth over and over and over?
Because without them we would be lost. One NASA engineer, when asked what he thought of the shuttle program, responded: "We tried."
And this is why I love NASA - with all its faults, cost over runs, misguided policies, and a vision that changes with every fickle administration - NASA continues to represent the best humans can be. While wars rage on Earth, petty differences divide us, doubt, fear and ignorance consume us, NASA continues to look skyward - daring to try, propelling our species forward. This is why I continue to watch every launch and landing of the shuttle. This is why I support the Planetary Society, the National Space Society, and countless other programs (and private space initiative too, by the way) whose main goal is to move the chains down the field and keep us dreaming of a better future. After all, America has spent more in one year of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than on the entire accumulated budget of NASA over the last 50 years.
They say when you look up at the sky at night you're looking back in time. For me, I see the future. That's why I always choose to look up.
Godspeed Atlantis on your final journey, and here's to NASA - may the sky never be your limit.
Know yourself, don't NO yourself.