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Dreaming about the final frontier.

This morning, thanks to Twitter, I realized that Space Shuttle Endeavour was landing in Florida—so I took a few minutes away from work to watch the landing.

Really there are a number of things to consider: First, I could watch the landing live thanks to streaming over the Internet—live feed, straight from NASA on my computer in Germany. Second, that space flight works—that we, as a species, learned the science necessary to take human beings, transport them into a truly hostile environment, and then return them to earth.

Space flight has been one constant in my life.

Honestly it has become so common that I rarely pause to reflect upon it—and as an American, I’ve understood that while America may have lost some of the early skirmishes to the Soviets in the race to space, ultimately America won: we put man on the moon, we launched two Voyager space craft, and we created the space shuttle. All of this in competition with the Soviets—and we won: the Soviet Union no longer exists.

I don’t remember which launch it was, but as a child my mother gave me special dispensation to watch the launch of the space shuttle (probably the first one), when she realized that I hadn’t been there, with the family, to watch the first moon landing in 1969—principally because I wasn’t born until nearly 5 years later. (I might note that this was a big deal because the TV in my family was not just black and white, but also it was in the basement, well out of sight and something for special, rare, occasions. We got a color television (Portland brand, as I recall) fairly late—probably 1987 or 1988.)

Like many kids of my generation, space enchanted me.

Star Trek (the original series) was something I watched regularly on channel 2 (The promos went “Star Trekking/ Star Trekking with Captain Kirk and Crew” – I believe the rhyme continued with “on channel two” but that could be a fragment of my imagination). There was a period in my life where Star Trek colored all of my thoughts—and when Star Trek: TNG (The Next Generation) came along, I was addicted.

But that’s neither here nor there: rather 1986 was a big year: it started with Challenger exploding with School Teacher Christa McAuliffe was onboard. Honestly, she is probably the only astronaut from the Space Shuttle Program that I can name off the top of my head (and I am now the age she was when she was killed!). I can remember the day with a great deal of clarity—it was sixth grade with Miss. Klarl, a sweet, and in retrospect, unusually good teacher, although we had some differences. I wouldn’t say it shattered my world (it wasn’t a Matthew Shepard scale event to my personal life), but it was something I fixated on for several days.

At roughly the same time Voyager II flew past Uranus. I don’t remember much about it right now, but I do know it captured my attention and I followed it intently—cutting out all the articles and photos I could find in the Rocky Mountain News and the New York Times. I did some kind of school project related to Voyager II, and I was, albeit briefly, a space geek.

The funny thing is, of course, that when I look back and reflect upon 1986, the year that it was, neither of these two events rank at the top of my list in terms of importance. Today I would say that the most important thing that happened in 1986 was the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

However, at the time, I was inspired by space and the challenges it presented.

As I write this, though, the Space Shuttle era is coming to an end: Endeavour landed for the last time this morning, and in just over a month, assuming there are no delays, Atlantis will launch for the last time—the last launch ever for the Space Shuttle program.

In theory the United States is planning to replace the Space Shuttle with something – but I suspect, given the influence of the Tea Party and the generally lackluster support for legitimate science in Congress, that the United States’ direct involvement in space will be limited for the foreseeable future.

It’s a shame: NASA’s space program provided serious inspiration for me and millions of other kids—and without something reaching for the stars, what will inspire future generations? It’s hard to be excited and inspired by fixing potholes. Government, in particular, America’s government needs to do both: fix potholes (e.g. maintain existing infrastructure) and inspire. Raising taxes to do both would be part of the answer.

5 comments to Dreaming about the final frontier.

  • prashanth

    one of my good contact’s friend was in that shuttle for the second time. He said that he sent emails from the ISS and was very excited to receive them.

  • We were lucky enough to see the first moon landing live on black and white TV on a hot summer afternoon, looking up in wonder that night at how there were actually people up there so far away. I was nine years old. My mother, who grew up in Radio Days, always said she couldn’t believe that the things they used to run as mere stories on Flash Gordon and such had already come to pass.

    • That sounds a lot like how my Mom remembers the moon landing — she gathered the family (the existing family) and they watched it together.

      There are so few shared events that we, cross communities, share — I can think of Challenger exploding, the OJ Simpson verdict, and 9/11 — off the top of my head — for Americans. I suppose that all three had some kind of play across many countries.

  • Michele J

    This post really struck a chord with me. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek too, and my Dad and I still share this bond. All he has to do is intone “I am Nomad…” to crack me up. God this is awful, but I think we used to watch it at the dinner table even, it was THAT IMPORTANT. My after-school fare was Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. Remember the Birdman?

    I was in 7th (or possibly 8th) grade when Challenger blew up. They announced it over the intercom and asked for a minute of silence. Many kids were crying. The first “big event” I remember though was Ronald Reagan getting shot. And, oddly, Solidarnosc.

    The Cold War was also a big thing for me. I worried about nuclear war quite a bit. What was that apocalyptic TV movie about nuclear war? Ah, just remembered: The Day After. Terrifying. I remember my parents debating whether I should watch it (they let me).

    OJ Simpson was not really on my radar, because I had long since given up TV and the Internet wasn’t as pervasive at the time.