On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket carried a small manned vehicle named Freedom 7. Inside was US Navy Commander Alan Shepard; chosen out of a pool of 110 potential candidates to pilot the Freedom 7 on its voyage. That day, Cmd. Shepard became only the second human being — and the first American — to break free of the bonds that keep us tied to our planet.
On July 8, 2011 (just over 50 years from Freedom 7‘s flight), Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley (a Tulane University grad!) and Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus will become the last crew to pilot an American vessel into space. They will fly the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station to bring supplies and equipment in STS-135.
Once home, the shuttle program will cease to be and the remaining shuttles (Atlantis, Discovery, Enterprise and Endeavor) will be shipped to museums around the country. Any future manned missions into space will occur through the Russian Space Federation, with our astronauts hitching a ride on their ships.
And if you’re a child who grew up in the last 30-40 years, this is sad.
For the last 30 years, the space shuttles have acted as both a beacon and a reminder of NASA and the space program. They’ve been occasionally overshadowed by other technologies — the Hubble Space Telescope with its beautiful photos of deep space or the Mars Rovers that quietly move and explore the red planet — but they’ve always been there. They became so ubiquitous and common place that, sadly, the only time we took notice of them was when disaster would strike.
Perhaps it was unfair to judge the shuttle program and NASA against the triumphs of the 60s-70s, when Americans flew to the Moon and captured the attention of most of the world. Our race to the Moon against the Soviets was a tremendous motivator for both politicians and the public to support a small agency like NASA. Money poured and gave NASA great clout. The military provided some of its best pilots to test their technology and to take the personal risks required. Scientists and engineers of every walk of life busted their asses desperately to work for them.
There was great benefit from all of this. The politicians gained a tremendous public relations triumph for themselves and our side against the Soviets. The astronauts became heroes. The scientists and the engineers got to work in a place that encouraged and channeled their skills. And the technological advances that the space race demanded led to much of the technology of our day — satellite TV and radio, smartphones, microwaves and TV dinners.
Obviously all of this cost a great deal of money. As the triumphs faded and the enemies of old became the allies of today, the cost became too much to bear. “Why waste money on space that can be used to fix problems on Earth” is the much-repeated retort to NASA and anyone who dreams of space exploration. NASA’s budget fell and fell, which led to cutting corners, which led to mistakes and disasters, which led to further budget cuts.
And this all ends with today’s final flight. America is turning the keys over to the Russians and the Chinese while moving much of its unmanned space program towards private, corporate entities. Promises of a leaner, simpler NASA are too similar to old promises that never panned out before. In short, America is getting out of the space business.
This is what’s making me sad. Because the space program was such a perfect analogy for America as a myth: The idea of not looking back to the past but forging ahead with the future. The identity of us as risk takers, explorers and challengers to the way things have been done before. The hope that we could bring the peoples of this Earth under the common banner of discovery and hope.
I wonder what Alan Shepard would say if he saw today. I wonder if he’d be so eager to risk life and limb aboard a ship “built by the lowest bidder” if he knew that all it would end up being was microwaveable snacks and faster ways to get porn.
I leave you with arguably the best stated argument for continuing our travels to space. It’s from the 90s sci-fi TV show, “Babylon 5”: