Right now, about 200 miles above your head, the space shuttle Endeavor is conducting its final mission. And in just a few months, the space shuttle Atlantis will fly the last space shuttle mission, bringing to a close 30 years of low-orbit aspirations.
The space shuttle program began with lofty ambitions. It once hoped to usher in a new era of inexpensive space transportation, and easily accessible low-gravity science, but that never quite panned out. Plenty of valuable science was conducted aboard the various shuttles and the International Space Station, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 not only tempered NASA’s ambitions, it also helped convince politicians that manned space science was not only too expensive, but also too costly.
The disaster happened at exactly the wrong time. NASA was just beginning to expand its brand name. Christa McAuliffe was the first proper civilian to be launched into space, and the publicity surrounding the event was of paparazzi-style proportions. I can still remember, distinctly, watching the crazy corkscrew smoke streamers that signaled disaster—the footage replayed in my eighth-grade history class for two days.
Very painful questions followed, and it eventually became apparent that the disaster was entirely avoidable: NASA administrators had known of the dangers in the fatal O-ring design since 1977.
One of the more disturbing revelations of the disaster was the very real possibility that at least three of the astronauts were alive, and possibly conscious, for almost three minutes after breakup.
A longer and more terrifying three minutes I cannot imagine.
Shuttle missions continued, of course, but even though talk of next-generation space vehicles began in the '90s, it was the Columbia disaster in 2003 that crippled whatever swagger NASA had left.
According to the report on the Challenger disaster, shuttles were supposed to have a failure rate of 1 in 10,000 flights. Instead it was 1 in 65. That’s sort of like aiming for Mt. Everest and landing in the Gobi desert.
Here’s the thing, though. We need the space program—desperately.
And we need a space program that has more than just low-orbit aspirations. Now, before any scientists or techies start launching qualifiers, let me say this: I know there is a tremendous amount of scientific value in unmanned space science. I’m all for it.
Please, put three advanced technology large-aperture space telescopes (ATLAST) into orbit; no objections here. Increase public funding for robotic scientific explorations? Absolutely.
But it’s not enough.
Human beings need larger aspirations. In fact, I would argue that part of the reason fundamentalism has been on the rise—in America, at least—is that we, as a people, have largely abandoned bold scientific endeavors. Science’s disjointed narratives just don’t play as well as religious narratives. And as a result, most of us find meaning in religion, not science.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
It may seem crazy in these depressed economic times, but we need moon bases, and Mars bases and manned flybys of Ceres. What is the scientific advantage of these explorations? More than can be enumerated, I’m sure; but to be honest, that’s not what’s important to me.
No, the reason to expand the space program is spiritual. I can think of no better way to promote the transcendental unity of the species than to put proper perspective on our collective predicament.
One tiny blue ball. That’s all we are.
And we need a bold space program to help us remember that.