April 12, 1981. It was the beginning of an era. I was seven years old, so I didn’t know about the end of the Apollo program the year before my birth. I was unaware of the fact that no American had been in space for nearly six years. I didn’t know the history or politics of the space program. But I saw that massive white machine climbing on a tower of flame and reaching for the stars. I knew the names of the heroes, John Young and Robert Crippen, and imagination and dreams soared with them.
The space shuttle was a mainstay of my youth. I’d even hear the occasional sonic boom when the orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Bace. From that first launch of Columbia with her white fuel tank to Sally Ride breaking the gender barrier for American women in space to the loss of Challenger and the joy of returning to space thirty-two months later. After that, it became routine, or it seemed so until the loss of Columbia.
By then, satelites and images from the Hubble had become commonplace. My attention had turned to more earthly pursuits, as did America’s, but I always felt good knowing that the shuttles were flying.
Well, as we all know, Atlantis launched yesterday on the last shuttle mission. I know it’s not the end of Americans going into space. I know that the Constellation program is moving forward, even as I write, but I’m still saddened by the end of this era, and not just for my own youthful nostalgia.
You see, Americans need a frontier. We always have, from the earliest days of our nation. We need something to look beyond, a horizon beyond which lies the unknown. Those are gone on earth. Sure, one might make a case for deep sea exploration, but it’s not the same. Americans, humans really, look to the sky. We look skyward for our frontiers, for beyond the sky lies the unknown. And what is the unknown, but the stuff of dreams?
So NASA has my congratulations on the shuttle program. But those congratulations come with a desire to return to space. We need to look to the sky, to dream. Until we return, our dreams will be sadly earth bound.