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Lift Off…or, the Thrill is Gone

Rain may delay today’s shuttle launch (kudos to one of our interns, Heather, and her connections at NASA). However, the long-awaited launch of the shuttle may still happen today at 3:53 Eastern, and I’m excited. Like others of my generation,…
July 13, 2005

Rain may delay today’s shuttle launch (kudos to one of our interns, Heather, and her connections at NASA). However, the long-awaited launch of the shuttle may still happen today at 3:53 Eastern, and I’m excited.

Like others of my generation, I’ve never known a time when mankind did not reach out to the boundries of space, and, to quote fictional president Josiah Bartlet, “touched the face of God.”

You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers we touched the face of God.

Yet, I am dismayed by the fundamental malaise that surrounds the space program these days – and I’m not quite sure how that happened. It’s been 36 years since we landed on the moon and roughly 30 years since the shuttle program was introduced. In the span of humanity, that barely constitutes a blink – and yet…

In grade school, classes would stop when the shuttle was launching. We’d gather around the television and gaze with wonder. Lesson plans were built around space. These were events. Community happenings. And, for my generation, the Challenger disaster was our Kennedy assassination. Ask anyone between the ages of 30 to 40 where they were when the accident happened and they will regail you with specific story details. You can almost see the horror come through.

Still, when President Ronald Reagan delivered his eulogy, saying that we would carry on the mission of exploring space to honor those who had died, I felt proud to be an American, part of group of people who are ever-reaching (in our best moments) for that which is greater than us.

Even today, as I write this and re-read that eulogy, the hair on my neck is standing up and, I must say, there are tears.

So I found it distressing that, when I taught college, few hands would raise when I asked my twenty-year-old students if they had ever watched a shuttle launch. And I find it even more distressing that I am increasingly surrounded by those who believe that NASA is a waste of money and that its mission has somehow strayed.

I will forego the arguments that space exploration is necessary for our understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe and our development of commercial technologies and products that have made our lives better. Far smarter persons than I can give you those.

What I do know is this: humanity is never better than when we, collectively, have something that is bigger than ourselves to work towards. The International Space Station is less about having a floating hotel in space, and more about coming together to conquer problems that simply cannot be solved alone.

We are explorers. That is our nature. And, to do that together, with goals larger than our own egos, is what makes us better.

But, President Reagan said it much more eloquently:

Today, the frontier is space and the boundaries of human knowledge. Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude - that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger.

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