It’s mid-2011, and NASA’s 30-year-old Space Shuttle program is coming to a close. There is no permanent shuttle replacement scheduled at this time to send astronauts into orbit; the flagging United States’ economy has impacted the space program, along with many other governmental programs, immensely. The mood along Florida’s Space Coast—the Eastern coast of Florida—is one of sadness and resignation. Many Florida residents like myself sort of took the activities at the Cape for granted; somehow we didn’t really believe the shuttle program would ever come to an end. Why couldn’t 30 years last forever?
As of mid-summer, we’ll never see the brilliant orange flames come out of those magnificent solid rocket boosters again in our lifetimes; we’ll never again be able to experience the spectacular views of night launches, when the blast trail is still wholly visible from hundreds of miles away. For those of us who missed the seminal space programs of the 1960s and 1970s—such as the Gemini and Apollo missions—the feeling is one of disappointment and loss. For those who grew up with the wonderment of the moon missions, the allure of the Space Coast has been tarnished by a malignant disinterest.
I was born in 1978, and grew up in Florida; space shuttle launches were a part of our routine lives from 1981 onwards. We experienced, first hand, the immense triumphs and soul-crushing tragedies which have been part of the space program. We were thrilled when we saw the first pictures of astronaut Bruce McCandless floating free in space, attached to nothing but a Manned Maneuvering Unit, in 1984. We were amazed at the otherworldly images beamed back to us from the Hubble Telescope. We were aghast at seeing the terrible y-cloud signaling the end of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986—in our own backyards. Again, we felt an enormous sense of personal loss in 2003 when the shuttle Columbia—NASA’s first shuttle—disintegrated upon reentry. After these tragedies, many Americans questioned the viability of the shuttle program. However, we were defiantly proud when the program rebounded time and time again.
For many of us, the space shuttle program had personal resonances. Now, with that outlet of exploration and escape going away forever, we ask: What comes next? What will happen to the space program, and the spirit of excitement associated with those historical missions? Also, we ask: What excited us originally about NASA, and why were we led so willingly into that feeling of excitement?
It goes without saying that, in most aspects, we have only just begun to explore the areas around Earth. Very few men have had the opportunity to walk on the moon; we barely nicked the surface of that world in terms of exploration. Many detractors of NASA decry the costs of sending missions into space; there are many who believe space exploration of any sort is a colossal waste of our government’s dollars. It’s very easy to forget the applications on Earth which have been perfected due to technological advancements within the space program (Why do you think your mobile phone works? Because artificial satellites exist). By allowing the space program to come to an end of sorts, we risk stagnating ourselves. The technology won’t develop itself. Furthermore, the spirit of exploration dies down and most depressingly, the excitement over future exploration disappears.
Moreover, as a life-long space enthusiast, my biggest fear is that the legendary tales of prior space missions will forever be lost. These narratives, passed down though 50-odd years by books and by word-of-mouth, are what excited us about the space program from the very beginning. The stories passed down through generations about previous space missions—about legendary astronauts like Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., and Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom—still hold a very special place in our hearts. I can only hope that future generations will continue to learn these stories, and pass them down the line to others.
I still think space exploration should be a vital part of our nation’s present and future. We still have tons of worlds to explore, technologies yet to be fully developed, and a lot of legends yet to be made. There are still many stories which need to be told. By losing our only vessels into space, we are slowly losing our national heritage.
Update: On May 24, it was reported that NASA plans to “aggressively pursue” the development of a “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), a new spacecraft based on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that was related to the Constellation program.”
—Emily Carney, Contributing Editor