I climbed onto the roof of my building today to watch the fly-by of the Space Shuttle Enterprise atop a 747, for its final air voyage before it becomes a museum piece on the deck of the USS Intrepid. I remember the sense of wonder, a tickle in the gut, when I watched the first space shuttle launch, the Columbia. I recall the emptiness when the Challenger exploded over the ocean. And worse, when we later learned it was avoidable, and that they burned up in the shuttle’s slow death spiral into the sea.
So there is another sense of loss, seeing the iconic shuttle fly for the last time. I know the space program will go on, with the Orion vehicles. At least I hope it will. The shuttles were what a car maker calls a “halo vehicle,” a money loser that drives other sales. The Dodge Viper never makes money, but those who can’t afford it might buy a sporty, affordable car from Dodge. The shuttle may have struggled to remain relevant, but it looked like what our dreams expected when we thought of futuristic space travel, and that made us interested in what NASA was doing, even if the science was a little dubious. Like when John Glenn flew up there to test zero gravity’s effects on an aged body. Hey, I was fine with the astronaut getting a freebie flight up there.
Will we watch the Orion launches with the same sense of wonder? I hope so. It’s a rocket based system. Not as sexy. I hope it will be much safer for the astronauts, though. 2 missions out of 135 failed, with loss of life. The engineers said the design would have a 1 in 100 chance of failure, and sadly, it looks like their math was correct.
We tend to think of the space program as a luxury, but I think President Kennedy was correct about its importance. We must dream big. We should not abandon our fight for the stars. It is not a zero sum game. Every space launch does not leave a child unprotected. And while we wage war with impunity, we cannot point a finger of blame at the rocket taking humanity to Mars.