At 11:23 Friday, I used a break from my legendary opticianry to be witness to one of the saddest things I’ve seen as an American. It was delayed a few moments in happening to ensure safety, but at 11:29, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off, carrying four astronauts and supplies bound for the International Space Station.
This was the last shuttle mission. The last planned manned space launch. It was so definitely the last mission that, unlike all missions before it, no other Shuttle and crew were on standby to rescue STS135 in the event of craft failure in orbit. Thus, the crew was limited to only four, the number of people the ISS and a returning Russian Soyuz capsule could accommodate.
We let the shuttle program expire with nothing ready to pick up where it left off, and worse, the planned replacement isn’t even a sure thing. The earliest date for the US to return to space is set at maybe-gonna-happen-but-likely-to-be-delayed 2016. NASA is targeted constantly for defunding of its already ludicrously low budget.
I do not want to detract from the impressive and valuable work of NASA’s unmanned science missions in landers and probes. With Hubble, Spirit/Opportunity, and New Horizons as prime examples,the usefulness of our inspiring unmanned exploration initiatives is not the issue (although I’m not surprised that recent house appropriations proposals would see the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, pretty much killed). What galls me, even as a humanities academic-to-be, is our complete disregard for the science necessary to support the future of humanity. We cannot stay on this single lump of dirt orbiting one star indefinitely. We cannot hope to eek out a “quality” of life equal to our current level forever if we restrict ourselves to this finite, limited Earth.
I’m not trying to be the Star Trek Geek Roger with this rant; I understand that the future of space exploration isn’t easy. Theoretically, we are going to be confined to this solar system for centuries, and may never be able to leave. Space is expansive and expensive, hazardous and humbling. While I personally believe that the limitations we’re unable to reconcile now have more to do with our inexperience than true, iron-clad, immutable laws, I recognize that it isn’t practical to see a future galavanting with the Vulcans, Klingons, and Cardassians – the science doesn’t support it. The science does support distribution of population, resource riches great enough to achieve a post-scarcity society, and a better understanding of our/Earth’s evolutionary past.
I don’t buy the argument that the money is better spent on Earth. When two years of Iraq/Afghanistan operations exceed NASA’s ENTIRE 50+ year budget, the argument of mutual exclusivity looks particularly absurd. Such backward thinking is what brought us here today, to an America without a manned spaceflight program and vague, ever-movable timelines for a return to the moon or a trip to Mars.
When Atlantis returns to Earth on July 20 – the 42nd anniversary of the first moon landing and a painful juxtaposition to behold – it will be the last display of America’s human space flight for at least five years. Atlantis will then be decommissioned, stripped down, and take up residence as the centerpiece of a public exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center, flipped upside down with its bay doors perpetually open. The concept is to recall Atlantis as it lived, in orbit around Earth, frozen in a pose it may have held when it was 190 miles above our heads instead of 192 feet. Like all taxidermy, however, I’m inclined to think it will exhibit not a farcical recreation of life, but a chilling, spectral memorial of death. How long must we wait for a new friend to help us move on from the loss of a three-decade friendship?