It is very hard to adequately describe the impact and implications of the final space shuttle launch, given the true context - America has no launch vehicle or program to replace the shuttle, and therefore is now relegated to “hitchhiker” status, along with all the other countries that don’t have the resources, or the vision, to understand the importance of space exploration.
I’ll never forget how angry my parents were when, in 1961 at 11 years old, I cut the front cover off the Time Magazine and taped it up in my bedroom. My parents were yelling at me “How can you have a Russian on your wall, they’re Communists, oh my G-d!” - and they took it down! Hey, all I knew was, this guy, Yuri Gegarin, actually went into space. Left the earth’s atmosphere. Went where there was no gravity. The first person in history to ever actually look at our planet. Well JFK took it seriously, “Now is the time...for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.” Gee, “may hold the key to our future” - think he got it?
Not two weeks after Gegarin’s flight, and let me just mention, the USA didn’t really have a way to launch an astronaut at that time without incinerating him, Kennedy said “First I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon...” The moon, the frakkin moon - we couldn’t even achieve escape velocity with an astronaut, but one of the few people on the planet with the vision to understand the importance of space exploration was our President!
And we, as a nation, followed Kennedy’s vision for nearly 5 decades. Why? Because deep down, in our gut, we all knew it was right - even the politicians were smart enough to not kill the space program. They understood that, even in a world filled with hate and violence, wars and famines, filled with extremists who envied and hated America - - - no matter what else was going on, when we launched a rocket with a space capsule, or a shuttle, or carried modules to the space station, or deployed the Hubble, the eyes of the world were on us. Through 5 decades America led, and the world followed. But that’s just the political side.
I never really considered the impact the space program had on my life, on all our lives, until my friend Ray, a brilliant engineer, educated me. Most of the technology we enjoy today, and this is not an exaggeration, came from the space program - from the computer you use every day, to the modules that control both the engine and electronics in your car, to the appliances in your kitchen. How about the electronics that run all the leading edge medical devices that allow life extending diagnoses? The dirt cheap electronics - ipods, cellphones, TVs - that we all take for granted? Do you really think that people spent millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, to shrink the room-sized Univac computer down to desk size so you could live on Facebook? Or do you think it’s more likely that development was essential to handle the onboard calculations that were required in a space capsule, calculations that simply couldn’t be done quickly enough using calculators, pencil and paper, either in the capsule or at mission control? Need I go on?
So on Friday when our last space shuttle was launched for its’ final flight I had a deep feeling of emptiness, despair and defeat. Similar to how I felt a few years ago when the last blast furnace in Bethlehem, Pa, the last blast furnace in the USA, the last facility in our country that could make steel, was laid silent for the first time in over a hundred and fifty years . . . and America’s ability to make steel was gone, ended, possibly forever.
The government says the shuttle program has ended but there’s a new launch vehicle on the way - - but they’re not really highlighting that the new vehicle is at least 7 years away. And something 7 years away, in the world of Washington politics, really doesn’t exist, does it?
So we have entered the Dark Ages.
You may think I’m being too dramatic, you may think I’m over-stating - I am not. Let me give you a few more of Kennedy’s words - “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention and the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be part of it - we mean to lead it.” Here was a man who understood the need for America to lead the world into space, a man who was willing and able to lead America, a man with a vision so strong we followed it for a half century.
Weak leadership with a flawed vision of America’s future has now relegated us to the role of follower. There’s talk of the Chinese yuan displacing the dollar as the world currency. Whisperings of the US becoming part of the European Union. Looks like we’ve decided to take a back seat to others in defense of freedom in repressive nations. And we have clearly sent the message America no longer has the prowess to explore space, as we reach the official decision to hitch rides from the Russians and the Japanese (which, ps, won’t be “free” rides).
I remember the words of Ronald Reagan from his Shining City Upon A Hill speech, “We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia.” Ronny, I hate to tell you, but we have now abdicated that leadership . . . and there is no other country with the resources and the conscience to take up the baton. The world is in trouble.
These are the implications of the final shuttle mission. It’s not the final mission, it’s the stepping away from the forefront, the abdication of leadership, the loss of vision that the end of the space program represents. It is a very, very big deal - - - but it is lost somewhere in the buzz about Casey Anthony and the arguments between Dems and Republicans. If something doesn’t change I’m afraid someday we’ll look back and fondly remember when America launched shuttles, forged steel, built cars and TVs . . . and we’ll also fondly remember that far distant shining city on the hill.