Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

I will NEVER take photos as good as NASA's! That's one shortcoming I can forgive myself.

When I was a kid I dreamed of being an astronaut.  Images of space shuttles launching into the heavens, men frolicking on the moon, and fantasies of traveling to Mars pervaded my mind.  Space held such wonder for me then.  The first shuttle disaster happened when I was six years old.  I understood the tragedy.  I knew people had died and that the nation had suffered a wound.  I saw my mother shed tears at the news of the catastrophe.  Yet I persisted in my dream to one day either take my own chances in space or at least study the heavens as an earthbound astronomer.

Pale Blue Dot

As I’m sure happened to most kids of my generation, eventually I abandoned my aspiration of going into space and concluded that such a dream was unrealistic.  But I held on to my love of the star speckled dome that opened above me on every clear night of my life.  Sometimes, when I was young, I imagined the night sky to be a dark, hollow sphere surrounded by a medium of light so bright that it must be liquid in quality.  I imagined that our world was nested inside of this black sphere, that its outer shell was shot through with holes, and that through these holes the light outside leaked in little by little.  Brighter specs were bigger holes.  Our sun was the biggest of them all and gushed light aplenty like a perennial spring.  I thought that with each passing moment the hollow sphere in which we were suspended filled with more light, and that if light were the stuff of happiness, then over the eons it would fill our world with a radiance so thick that one day we would be able to run our fingers through it as through water.

Servicing the Hubble Telescope

Twice when I was a boy I remember running into the street to watch the shuttle streak across the evening sky over the Texas Hill Country en route to Cape Canaveral, leaving a trail of plasma in its wake as if it were slicing the heavens in two.  And I remember vowing one day to watch a shuttle launch.  Only one opportunity remains.  The last shuttle will lift off this Friday, July 8.  I won’t be there to see it.

Nowadays I take these Hubble photos for granted, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Is human space flight a waste of money?  I don’t know.  All I know is that as a kid I marveled at the idea of launching people into space.  I idolized the men and women who sat on top of those rockets and, as it turned out, had about a one in fifty chance of never coming home.  For all of society’s delusions about the safety and the routine nature of the shuttle program, I think the astronauts knew the stakes.  They left the comforts of earth, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity and potential, and in doing so they gave little kids something to dream about.  Armies of scientists, engineers, and (yes) tax payers stood behind them and made the whole spectacle possible.

Hubble photo of a galaxy.

Maybe that’s what dazzled me more than anything: the space program emerged out of millions of hours of labor.  Over sixty years tens of thousands of people devised improbable ways of accomplishing the impossible.  It cheers me to think that all it takes is something like one hundred thousand clever optimists toiling for decades to pull off six manned moon landings, one hundred and thirty-three shuttle missions, the launch of a lone telescope that revealed the universe to be even more stunning and mysterious than we imagined, and dozens of missions to planets, asteroids, comets and moons throughout the solar system.  That we were able to harness the creativity of thousands and direct it to one romantic end gives me hope for the future.

The sun as photographed by NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope

Jupiter's Red Spot, which has changed significantly since I was a kid.

Saturn as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft

"Stellar Snowflake Cluster"--Hubble

*Disclaimer: I took none of the photos in this post.  I have never traveled into space, never floated above the earth, never orbited the moon.  I did build Star Trek models when I was a kid.  That’s something.  You know you did too… the one person who knows I’m talking about him or her.  You!

All photos from NASA.

*I actually searched for the official number of successful shuttle missions.  I found the numbers 123 and 119, each source dated this year.  TIME published an article today that placed the number at 133.  I guess I’m going with that one!

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About atomsofthought
Teacher. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

17 Responses to Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

  1. wittybizgal says:

    What a great blog…love the beautiful photographs! My husband and kids are going to get up VERY early on Friday to go watch the very last one take off…it’s sad, I think. 😦

  2. What a happy kid you must have been- I love the image you create of light streaming into our world, filling it with joy. Wow. I’m going to hang on to that one.

    I cannot think of our space program as a waste- think of the dreams fulfilled and inspired by it. Think of the discoveries, and our greater understanding of how things are. It is not a mistake for man to dream and to try big, big things. Only, we should have balance. Rather than plan to live in space, why not clean up our act on our own heartbreakingly beautiful planet?

    Thank you for posting the pictures- aren’t they breathtaking?!

    • Haha, for the most part I as a happy kid. I was fortunate.

      I’m sure there’s waste in the space program, but I just can’t see how the space program could be considered a waste. I guess that with the end of the shuttle, we have an opportunity to reorient ourselves and reassess what our goals are.

  3. I agree with Melissa – I love the imagery of the world suspended in your hole-filled shell (but I’m seeing a paper shell). I also don’t think it was a waste.

    Who would have thought that we would be able to explore space? It’s amazing to have gone from the Wright brothers to the moon and beyond.

    Point in fact: I made Star Wars models. Oh, and I was already a (so-called) adult when I did that.

    • Ah ha! So you’re the one I was talking to! Just kidding. There are more of us out there. Star Wars is one thing… Star TREK models, though? They sold them, so others must have built them, but I’ve never known one of these people. 🙂

  4. Joss says:

    That last sentence of your post touched my heart. thank you for sharing this.
    walk in beauty.

  5. pattisj says:

    Enjoyed the pictures. I can’t imagine the feeling, watching a shuttle launch. Too bad we won’t get to experience one. I often pondered the same question regarding the cost of the space program, and our needs here. Apparently there’s exploration of the unknown in our DNA.

  6. The Hubble images always stun me and force me to my knees in awe…figuratively speaking. This was a lovely post. It does make me a little sad that the shuttle program is ending, but it’s certainly not the end of space exploration. Perhaps money will be spent wisely enough so that we can see further advances that put us light years ahead of where we are now within our lifetime. One can only hope…

    • I remember first seeing those Hubble images when I was a little kid. I think they fueled the dreams of millions of kids (and adults) the world over. They’re statements of optimism, hope, curiosity, and wonder. I know the feeling you speak of!

  7. Steve says:

    I’m glad for your post and your optimism.

    I had similar dreams of space and technology while growing up. I abandoned those dreams for other pursuits. In my case it was well worth it. Had I been vaulting off into space I might not now have the wife and two adult children who make me incredibly proud every day.

    Humans as a species must continue to explore. Time to focus outward toward opportunity, humans. Imagine what the next step may be!

    • Agreed! Outward is the answer, including when it means looking inward, too. If that made any sense. 🙂 Dad, I’m grateful that you dedicated your life to being a good father. That will always be better than traveling into space.

      • Michelle says:

        Having a stressful night at work. This response made me feel better. I guess I need to call my parents 🙂 .

  8. I too wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. The manned space program was enthralling. I’m hoping to see a human on Mars in my lifetime 🙂

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