Thursday, March 10, 2011

When Discovery Ends

Okay, so the title of this blog entry is intended to be clever, believe it or not. That said, I have been thinking a lot about the end of the Space Shuttle program, and it's long term implications. With Shuttle Discovery touching down for the last time, prior to becoming a museum piece after having spent a cumulative year in space, only a few more Shuttle flights remain until the program ends.

When Discovery launched on February 24th, I was at work and turned on NASA TV to watch the launch. I was terribly disappointed by the coverage. I know that NASA likes to portray a professional, we-do-this-all-the-time attitude, but watching the launch coverage was about as exciting as watching grass grow. It's no wonder the American public is ho-hum about the ongoing space program. The NASA PR people just can't seem to figure out how to make the whole thing exciting. The irony is that the public really does get excited about it, despite the failures of the NASA outreach folks.

Here it was, the last flight of one of the most iconic spacecraft ever built, and there was nothing discernible in the way of fanfare and glory. I quipped to a friend that day, "So this is how America's space dominance ends ... with a yawn." I was a little miffed at the time, but several weeks later, I still don't apologize for it.

I have written in this space before (here and here) about my thoughts on the Obama Administration's handling of the Space Shuttle retirement. I do appreciate and understand the rationale behind it, and I still have high hopes for the future, but I still worry.

Thus far, even the best of our nation's private industry hopes, namely SpaceX, has yet to produce a human-rated launch vehicle. When it does, it will be more of a throw-back to the Apollo era than anything akin to what the Space Shuttle represents. Listening to the radio the other day, some space pundit said that "the Shuttle could do anything except leave low Earth orbit." That last "except" is a big one, but the first part of that quote (the emphasis was his ...) is nothing to scoff at.

So, even though NASA doesn't seem to have any clue how to gracefully retire the thing, I'm doing my best to help my children appreciate the end of the era. And it really is the end of the era. For the foreseeable future, with no end date in sight, our great nation will have no means to delivery people into space. That's just sad.

But that didn't stop me from taking my kids out on Tuesday night to watch the bright spots of light rise above the horizon as Discovery passed overhead, followed shortly thereafter by the International Space Station. We went to a nearby treeless/lightless park and oohed and aahed in excitement. The kids tried their best to find them in the binoculars, which they quickly, wisely abandoned; and I could only grumble when my oldest son, the dope, announced he left his glasses behind and couldn't see a thing. Even so, the children all thought it was great stuff, and I hope it will have some positive effect on their hopes and aspirations for the future.

And I will continue to do so, because I'm a conscientious parent. Even and especially since NASA can't figure out how to do it ...

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