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Space Shuttle Discovery Flies One Last Time February 24, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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This is it folks.  The beginning of the end.  Today, Thursday the 24th of February marked the final takeoff of space shuttle Discovery.  More than that though it signaled the start of the end of the shuttle era.  With only two ships left in the fleet (Endeavor and Atlantis) and only one flight left for each of them it won’t be long before all that remains of the US space program lies collecting dust in a museum.

Yes I am well aware that manned space flight will continue through private channels and on the whole I am supportive of that.  The shuttle program was intended to be the dump truck of space ferrying cargo back and forth between the ground and near earth orbit.  It failed in this regard both practically (delays and costs of the program are well know) and inspirationally (not many kids want to grow up to drive a dump truck.)   If the private sector can pick up the tab and the risk and allow NASA to get back to pushing the frontiers of human knowledge that you’ll hear nothing but support from me.

That being said I can’t face the end of the shuttle fleet without a pang of loss.  Like every young American boy, and lots of girls I wager, for at least some part of my childhood I wanted to be an astronaut.  I grew up immersed in science fiction, imagining a world in which Jedi’s and resurrected dinosaurs fought side by side, but I also grew up on NASA.  I still remember the day a man came to my school to tell us all about the new space plane they were working on, a craft that would be able to take you from California to Japan in a matter of hours.  The fact that the project (the X-30) never got off the metaphorical ground did nothing to diminish the sense of wonder it instilled in me.  To this day I still look up at the moon at night and can’t help but smile to myself at the fact that for one brief moment we stood on two worlds.

More than anything I guess the thing that NASA represented to me was the quest to expand our horizons for no other reason than because we wanted to.  There was no profit motive (at least none that I as a child could see), no political agenda (I grew up after the Cold War was essentially over) and no reason to go into space other than shear curiosity.  As you may have guessed I learned as I grew older that my original views had been somewhat naive but by then it was too late; the flag had been planted.  I never did become an astronaut but I can probably thank NASA at least in part for my current path in science and for the love of the universe they helped to instill in me.

The good news is that despite my nostalgia for the space shuttles NASA will move on to bigger and better things.  It has too large a role in the nations strategic goals to be left at the wayside and though it certainly has challenges ahead for it I have faith that the people who put a man on the moon can overcome them.  It may not be developing its own craft anymore but it will continue to what it does best: inspire us to look up into the sky and think “maybe, just maybe…”

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