Lost in space without a shuttle

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

With sincere apologies to Neil Armstrong, today we find ourselves confronting one small misstep for man, one giant thud for mankind.

When the final space shuttle mission blasts off with Atlantis on Friday, the final frontier will go on the back burner. It may not be the end of all manned space flight, but it is the end of the space program as we know it. Possibly for our lifetime.

Where's the American spirit in all of this? What if the pioneers had stopped in St. Louis? Hey, look, a giant arch, maybe there's a McDonald's somewhere. Let's stay here ...

Or if Lewis and Clark had quit somewhere out in western Iowa. Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa!

Or if the Wright Brothers had decided just getting off the ground was good enough. OK, Wilbur ... Orville, you proved your point. Back to the bicycle shop!

Americans have never stopped exploring. Never gone to the ends of the earth without pushing on even further. Never dipped a toe in the ocean without wanting more. So why stop now?

Didn't President Kennedy kick off this whole space adventure with his 1960s challenge, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard."

So now, some 50 years later, we are going to concede to a "been there, done that" attitude? Print the T-shirts, we're going home? Really?!?

Are we to be left only with "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" to satisfy our lust in space?

If you grew up in the '60s, like some of us, you know every space launch was an event with television coverage like the royal wedding and the voice of reason, Walter Cronkite, seemingly on TV around the clock.

When Alan Shepard was blasted into space and John Glenn orbited the earth for the first time, we watched live on TV at school (an event previously reserved only for the World Series). Our teachers hustled us into one sixth-grade classroom to share grainy, black-and-white images of space travel. The world seemed to stop as we turned our eyes to the skies.

It certainly did on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. And again when Apollo 13 encountered its problem, Houston.

During the '60s and '70s the space program left its mark on everything from music (think "Rocket Man") to architecture (Seattle's Space Needle) to sports (Houston Astros, Houston Rockets, even a Hoosier high school, Indianapolis Northwest, with the nickname Space Pioneers).

Over the years, of course, space flight became so commonplace that network television even quit pre-empting morning talk shows or afternoon soap operas to cover manned space flights. How could something once so captivating become suddenly so boring?

Probably because we quit boldly going where no man had gone before. Is it enough for us now that we're able to view Mars from the comfort and safety of the Internet?

Wasn't this the generation of "Yes, we can"? Then why are we settling for "No, we can't"?

Experts say money is the big issue. The shuttle program cost about $200 billion over the past 40 years. Friday's launch will be its 135th since the first shuttle rocketed into space on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

Yet the space program has returned that enormous investment with huge advances in technology.

For example, whether you use a cell phone to talk or text, you can thank the space program. Rely on duct tape in a pinch? So did the guys aboard Apollo 13. Computer control your auto emissions and fuel consumption? Another byproduct of our space program. And lest we forget ... duh, Tang!

NASA supposedly does have plans to create a "heavy-lift launch vehicle" designed to allow astronauts and equipment to venture farther into space than ever before. But that project is apparently shelved until 2020 or later.

In the meantime, the glamour and romance of human space exploration has been put on hold in lieu of space probes and robots.

Zest for space travel now grounded, it leaves me with but one thought ... "Danger, Will Robinson!"