Shuttle: end of an era

Robots probe.  Humans voyage.

I didn’t make a note of who said that recently, and I regret that.  Because it’s exactly how I feel.

On May 16, the last Endeavour flight, the second to last shuttle flight, went up.  I wrote an angry – very angry – post about how little attention was paid to it, how no one cared.  I ended up deleting it for various reasons, but I never stopped being angry.  The anger is just swamped by grief right now, because early this morning the final shuttle flight – the last by Atlantis, the last ever – landed.

It’s over.

Worse, there’s nothing taking the shuttle program’s place.

“We’ve come full circle since 1961, back to when we had yet to show we could launch people into space,” said Steven Dick, a retired NASA chief historian. “We will be hitching rides from the Russians to go to the space station that is mainly ours.”

Part of the angry post (other parts of which are cannibalized later):

Know where I found out about the exact date and time? Was it a breaking news email? A news website? The evening news?

No.

It was a sales email from Thinkgeek.com.

I just spent 45 minutes looking for confirmation on the internet. I can usually find anything I look for in seconds. I wanted to see what I could turn up by using a search engine – two, actually: “final shuttle flight”, on two separate search engines. Know what I found? I found that apparently I’m one of the only ones looking. And until I finally went to the obvious place – NASA.gov – I found nothing – nothing – and honestly it took a couple of minutes to find it on the NASA site. It’s not front page news.

I went looking for something about Endeavour on CNN.com, and there was nothing, except:

Oh, there it is. In the Technology section, about four fifths of the way down the page, with stories about dead dolphins and arthritis therapy for dogs.

And they say anger is the next stage. Oh, as I said, I’m there. I’m furious. I’m outraged that this country has paid so little attention to the space program all these years. I’m outraged that it’s ending – not being replaced, not yet, not for the foreseeable future; that hope was destroyed last year, quietly and without any more publicity than most of the shuttle flights over the past thirty years.  And I’m heart-broken that this country has paid so little attention to its ending.  I would be fine with the end of what is admittedly an out-moded and less-than-technologically-current fleet of shuttles – I know that my first car had more computer brainpower than the shuttles – if they weren’t all we have. There is literally nothing else in our stable.  If I’m wrong about that, I hope someone tells me – I don’t think I am.

U.S. astronauts are going to be hitching rides from (paying, through the nose, for rides from) other countries – formerly our competition – to get to the space station. Our competition.  They won.  And that doesn’t trouble anyone. That doesn’t seem to strike anyone as mortifying.

I’m angry with this country for looking away, government and populace both. Astronauts were once lauded and given parades. Then I guess the novelty wore off. Sitting on a rocket and being blasted out of Earth’s gravity stopped being interesting. But some fool sports team wins a ball game, they’re given a huge celebratory parade every year. Can you fathom the depth of courage it took for the first crew to fly Discovery in 1988 after the Challenger tragedy? Or in July of 2005 after Columbia? (That was Discovery again.)  But who remembers that? Overpaid men playing games are this country’s heroes, not people risking their lives and leaving the planet, and facilitating life-altering science. Perhaps two disasters weren’t enough to keep people’s attention – maybe the space program should have been handled like NASCAR or hockey, where there is always an opportunity for calamity.

And there is still a level of criminal ignorance out there, personified by those who purse their lips and shake their heads and talk about how all that money should be spent on important things, oblivious to the many reasons a space program is one of the most important investments this or any country can make.  Oblivious to the myriad advancements they take for granted every single day which would not exist without the shuttle program.  Oblivious to the notion that if the current apathy toward manned space flight, toward exploration, had been the attitude of most of Europe through the Middle Ages and Renaissance toward exploration, the world would be a … slightly different place.

I’m furious with the media – for obvious reasons. Again, not enough blood, or too much – who knows?

I’m devastated by NASA – there has to have been more they could have done, or better. There has to be. I know bureaucracy grew out of control, and I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how the agency in charge of the country’s future could fail so miserably.  I know there will continue to be unmanned missions; we’re going to keep tossing robots and probes up there, and that’s great.  But that’s not good enough.

And I’m angry with myself, because I can’t help feeling like I should have done … something. Squawked sooner, and louder, and in company with the rest of the geeks, deeper-dyed than I am, who are also out there working through the grieving process right now. Raised money. Studied science. Written more. Learned the names of all the astronauts. There have been a lot of shuttle flights that have gone up without my ever knowing about them, and I can blame the media till we get back in space again (another way of saying, perhaps ironically, “when pigs fly”), but I could have been camping out on the NASA site and I could have known more, known better.

I could have gotten up at three a.m. when I was in Florida for training in February 2010 and made my way up on the roof and watched for the shuttle to go over.  I was there.  I will always regret that.

I’m too wiped to try to hunt down the quote, so I’ll paraphrase without credit and with apologies: on coverage this evening a NASA official said something along the lines that America is waking up and remembering that we like to be first.  Well … it’s quite possibly too late.  I’ll say it again: the shuttle program has ended with no manned spaceflight alternative in its place.  Moonbase?  First to Mars?  First outside the solar system?  Right now, how can I believe any of that’s going to be America first?

The t-shirt on ThinkGeek.com about says it all:

But… But…

Geeks love the Space Shuttle Program. After all, it was a huge write-in campaign by Star Trek fans that got the first orbiter named Enterprise instead of its intended name, Constitution. We’ll admit it. We’re gonna miss it.

For one generation, the question was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” All our customers remember the moment they found out about 9/11. But for a 10-15 year window of Americans in their 30s and 40s, the defining tragedy of our generation was the Challenger disaster. We know exactly what we were doing when we heard about it. We weren’t around (or aware enough) to have been shaped by the moon landing or Apollo 13, and Hubble’s combination of unmanned-ness plus its rocky start got it mentally written off. For this group of people, the Space Shuttle is synonymous with the U.S. space program. So the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is bittersweet for us. Okay. Honestly? There’s nothing sweet about it. It’s just bitter. If you’re in the room with us when we watch the final launch, that’s totally allergies. Or dust. Or um… eye spouts. It’s a meteorological phenomenon.

A dejected astronaut tugs a small Space Shuttle behind him on a white, 100% cotton t-shirt.

And that’s it.  It’s over.  T-shirts, children’s toys, and museum exhibits: that’s all that’s left of America’s manned space program.  For the first time in forty years – the first launch (Columbia) went up April 12, 1981 – there is absolutely no point in an American child saying “I want to be an astronaut”.

SVG version of PNG Space Shuttle Logo/Patch.

Thanks and farewell ...

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