This morning the Endeavour orbiter launched from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center carrying people and equipment into space. Only four more shuttle launches will occur and the fleet of orbiters will be retired in mid-September. When that happens, America will lose the ability to put a man in space.
Many will argue that putting people in space or on the moon is/was pointless and a waste of money. Those with this attitude will kindly turn their attention to the list of NASA spin-off technologies. This list includes (among many others) LEDs, in-ear thermometers, and improved water purification systems. There are also countless other improvements in technologies driven by NASA's need for more efficient and more reliable equipment.
President Obama's budget plan for 2011 removes all funding for the Constellation Program, which would have led to the development of a new vehicle for transporting humans in to space. If the cancellation of funds occurs (which is pretty close to a sure thing) then the United States will not be able to put people in space for the foreseeable future. This saddens me. We've given up on exploring space in any serious manner. We haven't been to the moon since 1972. All the astronauts still living that walked on the moon are in their 70s. Another ~20 years and there will be no person alive who walked on the moon. Isn't that kind of sad?
I wasn't alive when any of the astronauts walked on the moon; but I am still filled with wonder at the idea of stepping foot on a different celestial body. While Star Trek is fiction, I think its tag-line embodies the sense of awe several generations have held about being able to put people into space: "...to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before". It expresses the desire to seek out knowledge for the sake of learning.
The mission wasn't "to find and commercialize new civilizations and technologies, to open new markets for our products, to boldy make a buck where no man has made a buck before." Unfortunately, that seems to be mantra of our society. NASA operates on a shoestring budget, the National Labs have (essentially) been privatized to focus on making money (goodbye long-term original research projects to discover more about the universe), public education is about rubber stamping every kid's high-school diploma, and being educated is nerdy and undesirable.
I miss the future we were promised as kids. A world where space exploration was common. A world where man's search for knowledge and understanding overcame petty differences of culture and societal status.
I've always wanted to watch a shuttle launch and time is running out. Jess and I are hoping to take a trip to see the final flight of the Atlantis orbiter in May.
On September 24, 2010, when the Discovery lands, marking the end of U.S. manned spaceflight, I hope everyone can pause for a moment to reflect on what we've lost.