Yesterday, Space Shuttle Endeavor completed the final leg of her cross-country journey from Florida. She flew on the back of a modified Boeing 747 down California and landed at Los Angeles International Airport. As has been widely reported, Endeavor’s new home is to be the California Science Center.
It was a glorious sight. In some ways, a victory lap. But it was also, as tweeted by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and producer of 2009′s Star Trek, an open casket wake. Not just for the shuttle program. Today, American manned space exploration is a footnote in history, just like the ship that represented it.
I remember being a child in 1981, watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia—not just a rocket, a tube with a person in it, but an honest to God space ship—on our tiny color TV in our apartment. Watching that ship ascend to the heavens signaled that the sky really wasn’t the limit. What used to be fiction, was now fact. If we could dream it, we could do it.
Now that dream is a museum piece.
It wouldn’t be so tragic, if there was a newer, more advanced ship, a modern manned space program launching us into a new frontier of exploration, adventure, expansion of what it means to be human. But there isn’t. NASA’s budget is less than a measly line item in one of our myriad wars. The return on our investment on dollars spent by NASA is as high as 14 dollars returned for every tax dollar spent. And yet NASA’s budget is routinely gutted by both parties even though it’s too tiny to make a dent in the overall deficit or debt. I guess dreams are easier to kill than pork barrel spending.
Currently, our astronauts are reduced to begging rides on other nation’s space ships, and hoping that industry will one day cover some of the low orbit tasks that our government wont fund. We can still do amazing, wondrous things like sending probes to Mars, but if humanity will ever touch those other planets, if we’ll ever mine asteroids for their precious minerals, if we’ll ever expand our reach beyond this little blue ball, today it looks like it’s up to the Chinese, who are developing their own manned space program. Hopefully they can run with the ball that we’ve not only dropped, but deflated and put on a shelf.
And hopefully, one day, America will remember how to dream.