Thursday, July 21, 2011

The End of the Beginning


Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center this morning.

I rose about 5:30 this morning and took time to fire up my iPad and open the NASA TV App in order to witness the successful landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This marked the conclusion of flight STS-135 and, moreover, the completion of the US Space Shuttle Program that has been so much a part of my life over the past 30 years.

Having missed the launch 13 days ago due to a business meeting and missed virtually every important aspect of the mission live (I was able to replay videos of everything online later, of course), I wanted to be sure to at least be in the Now for the touchdown in Florida. STS-135 replenished the International Space Station (ISS) with a year of supplies and brought back to Earth a lot of “junk” (mostly various devices that have broken over the years aboard the ISS) for analysis by various engineers to make such things better the next time.

And there will be a next time. This is not the end of anything but a single program, like Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury (and many others) before it.

I managed to catch a few interviews live with the shuttle crew members and various NASA engineers on NASA TV during the mission. One thing that always strikes me about everyone I’ve ever heard from NASA is that, unlike any other government agency I can think of except perhaps the National Parks System, the public persona of every single person working for NASA (astronauts included, of course) is upbeat, optimistic, smiling, enthusiastic about what they do, intelligent, articulate, and inspired. I want some of that. Why have I never known any work place where the employees and managers are all, apparently without exception, that way? Maybe they have personality tests and only hire happy people.

One of the first things I did when we got DSL after we built our house was watch the Space Shuttle (STS-63, I believe) dock with the Mir Space Station. I recall thinking what a wonderful world we live in, to be able to sit in the comfort of my home in the middle of what used to be a cattle pasture/cotton field and watch a chapter of human space exploration live.

One of the times in my life when I felt the most “American” (when I experienced the intimate separateness inherent in national identity) was when I was in India in January 1986. The British influence weighs heavily on much of Hindu culture and Indians enjoyed “tea time” in the morning and afternoons as if they were Londoners. Anyway, I approached a group of mostly Europeans staying at the ashram where I was practicing yoga for afternoon tea. They were discussing the latest news, arriving by newspaper, of the Challenger Disaster.

I was shocked. What a horrible event. But, what surprised me even more was how matter-of-factly the event was communicated to me as the group moved on to other topics. To them it was just another news event. To me it was a wound to my heritage. I felt the distance between their acknowledgment of the tragedy and my appreciation for the national dimensions of the event. This single moment registered with me in such a way that since then I have often tried to understand news events from foreign counties or even distant places in America as if I lived there. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the weight of happenings on those more directly connected to them than myself; taking me out of my “lifeworld” and putting me into an “intersubjectivity” to put it in the terms of a contemporary school of philosophy which I hope to blog about at some future date.

To that extent, the Space Shuttle Program taught me something. But, for the most part, it has inspired me and given me other ways to contextualize human endeavor. Space is our future, after all. No matter what cutbacks the present reality of “austerity” might bring, sooner or later we will return to manned spaceflight, to the Moon, and on to Mars. Humanity explores. That is a simple historical fact. And space, as Trekkers know so well, is the final frontier.

So what’s next? Well, for now the Russian Space Program will keep the ISS functioning with its Soyuz fleet. NASA will continue to develop the next space vehicle, which will be a multi-purpose design. China wants to place a human on the Moon. We can also expect private enterprise to play a larger role in future explorations and missions. In fact, the privatization of space might be the next step in the evolution of how we explore the Moon and journey to Mars.

It is not exactly the same today as when I was a kid. Not everyone wants to be an astronaut. But, I remember when I did and so did many of my friends. Our innocence was caught up in an adventurous period in American history, born out of the Cold War for sure, but nevertheless devoted to visions of discoveries in space and colonization of space, just as it was with the great explorers in sailing ships that ventured to our new world hundreds of years before. The Moon missions and the Space Shuttle Program that followed them captivated my imagination and served as one more example of how humankind can Be if we so choose.

About five centuries separate the adventures of Columbus from the adventures of Columbia. I don’t think we’ll have to wait 500 more years before human beings will live in space. Perhaps we must await some economic motivation or perhaps politics will provide the reason for continuing humanity’s heritage in space. (We can’t let China claim the Moon for itself now can we?) But, regardless of the rational explanation for it, at bottom we will return to space and remain in space because that is what human beings do.


As a species our faults are many but boldness is not among them. It is in the spirit of Being human that the Shuttle Program Be but another milestone in a continuum that stretches across a thousand centuries back to our decision to explore the Earth out of our East African homelands. Greater things await us. This is but "the end of the beginning" of it all.


Famous final image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked at the ISS taken about six weeks ago. It is the only image ever taken from the perspective of another spacecraft of a Shuttle docked at the ISS. One for the ages.

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