Monday, July 25, 2011

Hail, Alantis!

Thirty years ago, the idea of a reusable space vehicle seemed like a very exciting concept. So enthusiastic were we all, that we opted to name the very first one after James T. Kirk's vessel. The fleet of space shuttles outlasted the voyages of the Starship Enterprise by a factor of six, unless you're counting all those movies and spin-offs. Now the final shuttle mission has come to an end, and I couldn't be more deflated.
I just got back from a trip to Washington, D.C. where I was able to walk around all those bits and pieces of our country's space program. I got to touch a moon rock. I saw capsules from the Gemini and Mercury programs. I walked through Skylab. I looked up at a recreation of the joint Apollo/Soyuz mission. I gawked at space suits and lunar rovers. I stared for minutes at the pocked heat shield of the command module Columbia. My wife struggled to keep up with my son and I as we bounced from one exhibit to the next, both at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall as well as the new facility out near the Dulles Airport. So much to see, so little time.
I remembered another trip, nine years ago, to the Kennedy Space Center, where I strolled around the Rocket Garden, marveling at the size of the machines we had thrown into outer space. It was also the first time I got up close and personal with one of America's "Space Trucks."
Way back when, the idea of being able to take off like a rocket and land like a plane seemed so revolutionary. Now it's old hat. Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that any new technology is indistinguishable from magic doesn't also suggest that when technology gets old, it's boring. Sadly, all those trips to outer space have become tired. There is a small but vocal minority who insist that America must continue to lead in air and space. But they are the minority. Most Americans are happy to see our time and money invested in creating jobs and opportunities right here on terra firma.
While I was in D.C., I also had a chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery, where new monuments have been erected to honor the astronauts of the Challenger and Columbia. I stood there in the July sun and reflected on three decades of Space Shuttle missions. A couple of days later, I was looked up at the Space Shuttle Enterprise. This was the one that had never been out of Earth's atmosphere, traveling primarily by piggyback on a 747, but there it was big as life. In a museum, like all of America's other decommissioned space ships. But I know that's not where they started. It's just where they landed.

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