The Final Frontier

The final launch of the space shuttle has now been relegated to the pages of history.  In too few days he shuttle will return and like her sisters be relegated to museums scattered around the country.

I remember when the world was shocked by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight.  We played catch up and soon the American space program had us riveted to our transistor radios and portable TVs (a portable television in those days was any black and white television with a handle mounted on the top regardless of how much it weighed.  Of course the difference between a portable television and a large screen was also pretty much inconsequential.)  A launch day was one day in which every student paid close attention in school.  We all knew we were watching history being made.

In school, everything would stop as the broadcast of each launch took place.  It was the top story in the paper before the launch and the next day after the capsule recovery.  Eventually we reached multiple astronaut capsules with multiple days of orbit.  Then we landed on the moon.  Suddenly we no longer seemed very interested.

Was it because President Kennedy challenged us to get to the moon within the decade, we did and therefore it was all over?  Did we lose our enthusiasm because we now had Tang and Teflon and other spinoffs from the space program?  Regardless of the reason, space travel – which had fascinated us from early times and which was stirred up by Jules Verne, Walt Disney and Arthur C. Clarke, was pretty much abandoned.

Personally I’d expected that after the 2nd or 3rd moon landing, we’d say something like, “I think the neighborhood looks good.  Let’s build a home here.”  Instead, the moon was treated more like Carlsbad Caverns or Wall Drugs; been there, done that got the bumper sticker.  No reason to go back.

The hope is that space travel will be handled by commercial interests and the government will contract with them.  This is not illogical since much of the development of near earth space has successfully migrated from the government to the private sector.  Commercial satellites carry telephone signals and television programming for both cable systems and homes.  Although the GPS orbiters were originally for the benefit of the military, Americans rely on the GPS system for their cars, aircraft and cell phone location finding.  I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention that amateur radio has a number of satellites in orbit as well.

Perhaps the problem was that the space program has been pretty limited as far as people go.  Astronauts and cosmonauts get to go into space as well as the occasional billionaire.  It’s interesting that although America is the ultimate proponent of capitalism, it was the Russians who have cornered the market on space tourists.  In any case, since there’s virtually no chance that most of us will personally travel into space, it is easy to lose enthusiasm.

So the US Space Station Freedom became the International Space Station and has hosted fewer people in its entire life than a small Holiday Inn will in an average week.  The United States, the first nation to put a man on the moon is waiting for the return of its last shuttle after which it will become a museum piece.  In order to get to the space station, the US will have to contract with Russia. 

Too bad the space industry couldn’t have been used to help the economy recover.  I’d have rather seen the money go there rather into some investment banker’s bonus.  I guess I just never got over Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, much less Star Trek.

Space is a huge quantity of nothing. Dreams are nothing.  Perhaps that is why space is the stuff of which dreams are made.



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