“Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

I’ve been struggling all day to put together thoughts on the Challenger tragedy anniversary and the bigger question of what role the U.S. should maintain in humanity’s exploration of space. Part of it is the very happenstance of the calendar: it’s a thought that only occurred because of the anniversary, as probably any other day that isn’t already taken over by State of the Union madness would be a better day to meditate on the theme. Surely, unlike President John F. Kennedy’s address to Congress on May 25, 1961, or President George W. Bush’s own 2004 State of the Union address, President Obama won’t announce some new  space program or inspirational goal. 

That said, I’m barely older than the Space Transportation System, so for me at least, it’s practically been around my whole life. If you’re similar in age, there’s a good chance you remember that morning. Some school figure (people who are not astronauts in this story are not as cleverly remembered—I was pretty dang young at the time) wheeled in an old television, and we were sat down in front of it, because there was a teacher on the shuttle! It was approaching lunchtime in the Eastern Standard Time zone, so I’m sure we were especially restless. I just remember not caring at all.

Then the shuttle took off, and all of us were in awe. Look at that thing rocket into the sky! Wait, what just happened?

None of the pupils in that room had any faculty to understand what had just been seen. None of the school figures had any ability describe what had happened and what it meant. I’m not sure I ever figured out what happened without the assistance of years of inundation by news media. There’s a difference in knowing that it happened because you saw it and knowing that it happened because it’s common knowledge. In a way, I probably witnessed it the same way people born ten years later witnessed it: through watching the video, by reading about it, by hearing about it, by being taught about it.

The Space Transportation System was grounded for several years after it. That gave me time to catch up and understand what exactly these spaceships did. And when they started flying again, we were once again in awe. Years and hundreds of missions went by, and by seventeen years later, America would be bored of them. Very few watched the liftoffs anymore, very few followed the landings. But they didn’t stop being incredible feats of human ingenuity. Unfortunately, we were reminded that space travel is not ordinary on February 1, 2003, when Columbia met its demise, this time not on launch but on reentry.

The program endured for eight more years, but the last space shuttle to reach space descended safely to earth on July 21, 2011. With the end of the program comes the end of the era of U.S. domination in the arena of space exploration. American astronauts and equipment now must hitch rides from foreign space agencies. Soon, perhaps all American space travel will be firmly held in the hands of the private sector, which is quickly catching up to abilities previously only held by the most powerful countries.

Humans first walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. The last human to walk on the moon was December 1972. Humans have not walked on the moon in 41 years. It’s a damned shame that that’s destined to continue.

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