Monday, August 8, 2011

Ad Astra

Current Reading: Scientific American. I have a lot of issues to catch up on. I'm about 6 months behind.

Inspirational Quote: "Per ardua ad astra." -- Motto of the RCAF.

On July 21st, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center. It was the last flight of a program that began in 1981 with the maiden voyage of the Columbia. I remember watching the mission, although I can't recall details. I was 13, and it seemed like the stars were opening up to us. Within a few years, I thought, we'll have a space station as a jumping off point for Luna. Then, from Luna, in a few years more, we'll have the first manned expedition to Mars.

Of course, I was disappointed. But then, the aliens from Close Encounters never landed in real life either, and I'm STILL disappointed by that.

For the next 3 years, I watched every launch I could. After that, I was at University and spent more time reading and making things go bang than I did watching the news. The rest of the world grew more apathetic as well, as shuttle launches began their migration from front-page news to footnotes in the newspaper science section... if it had one. Of course, the disasters disrupted the program and made the shuttle news again, but on the whole, space travel became a regular part of life on earth: "Pauly Shore has made a movie that isn't funny, the space shuttle Discovery did something, and the Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs..."

Now, the program is over. Outer space is once more a distant frontier, with the Americans depending on the Russians to act as taxi drivers if they need a trip to the ISS.

We were discussing the demise of the shuttle program a few days ago when a friend asked me what the program had contributed. What had it done? Why was it a big deal? I thought about it for some time before giving the wrong answer: something about the ceramics knowledge that was developed while they were trying to create the heat shield tiles.

The real answer is that science isn't a matter of breakthroughs. It's about expanding knowledge, and the shuttle was a tool that made possible a myriad of incremental expansions. I don't know of any major leaps forward in science or technology that the shuttle created, but I know hundreds of experiments, some by school kids, would never have yielded results without the shuttle's ability to carry them into orbit.

But more important, the shuttle was a dream given form (a quote from Babylon 5). A generation of kids grew up seeing the shuttle launches and landings. They saw space not as something distant and unachievable, but as a place next door that they could visit someday. Heck, they even let Canadians on the thing. We never got around to going back to the moon. Mars is just a place we throw big hunks of expensive metal at every few years. But for a little while, we regularly stepped outside our atmosphere and stood on the threshold of the infinite, looking out at the still-distant stars and in at the blue marble where we lived.

By the time the shuttles retired, they were 30 years old. Aeons in technology terms. They are museum pieces now, as they deserve to be. They are reminders of what we can achieve, and of what we have yet to achieve, and I'm going to miss them.

*Image courtesy of NASA.

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