I know exactly where I was when the very first Space Shuttle, Columbia, completed its mission April 14th, 1981. I was sitting with a friend in the Red Lantern bar, right next to Kelo, looking at a TV set with one eye and at my brand new Casio quartz digital musical alarm watch with the other. In order to test its accuracy, I had started the timer two days earlier exactly at the moment the NASA guy said “We have liftoff.” I set the alarm to go off the moment Columbia was scheduled to touch down. Sure enough, as soon as the spacecraft’s wheels hit the runway, my new watch burst into an electronic version of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I don’t remember what impressed me more: the successful mission of this latest American adventure in space or the fact that the Japanese could build such an amazing inexpensive timepiece.
I wasn’t wearing a watch; in fact, I wasn’t even awake to witness the last Space Shuttle land at twilight Thursday morning in Florida. It was apparently a pretty emotional moment for all those connected with the Shuttle program over the last three decades. It brings to close an era in American space flight filled with incredible discoveries and achievements but also a pair of terrible tragedies which cost the lives of 14 astronauts. Now, it’s anybody’s guess if America will have a manned space program ever again. Oh, the president says this is just a lull; that we’ll be exploring Mars or some asteroid within the next 15 to 20 years. Well, not really. We don’t even have a solid plan in place for deep space missions. Americans will continue to go back and forth to the space station orbiting the earth, but they’ll now have to hitch a ride with the Russians.
I’ve always found the idea of manned space exploration to be, in the words of Mr. Spock, “fascinating” but if the Shuttle program has taught us anything, it can be boring as hell too. Unless there are serious life-threatening problems, the Shuttle missions have, for the most part, been like watching the UPS truck show up at your front door. There’s nothing romantic or exciting about hauling a bunch of food and supplies up to the Space Station and returning with a couple of wobbly kneed astronauts who’ve been up there floating around for months doing god, knows what in the name of research. I, for one, am not too upset that NASA is parking our fleet of high level delivery trucks. It’ll be up to private business or other countries to do the heavy lifting from now on.
The other important thing that we’ve learned about space travel in the last thirty years is that it will never really be possible to one day board a Star Trek-type ship and venture off to other galaxies, boldly going where no man..correction..no ONE has gone before. First of all we haven’t figured out this whole space-time continuum business. Mars is just 45 million miles from earth and yet it takes 8 minutes at the speed of light to get a radio signal there and back.
We’d have to zip along at many times the speed of light just to get out of our own galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies. Even if we could go that fast, Einstein proved that time won’t be the same here on earth as it would be for those bopping around the universe. So, no phoning home from the Vega System to make sure the wife doesn’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning. She’ll have been dead for a few thousand years.
By now, you’ve figured out that I’m no scientist but I do watch a lot of TV and have been especially intrigued with the series, “Through the Wormhole” narrated by Morgan Freeman on the Science Channel. It actually deals with the seemingly insurmountable problems of deep space exploration by humans; how to achieve such speeds, how to sustain life aboard a starship, how would earthlings ever stay in touch? The series also looks at the possibility of a 4th dimension; alternate realities which, on the surface, seem as far fetched as the fact there are as many stars in the universe as grains of sand in all the oceans and deserts of earth. I get a headache just thinking about it.
Humans have always been driven by the desire to explore the unknown. I just wonder if, considering what we already know about the limits of space travel, there is anything out there that Americans can get excited about enough to invest in again.
Thanks to the robot rovers, we had thousands of close-up views of Mars. Is it really worth spending billions of dollars on an 18 month-long manned mission to the red planet just to confirm what we already know; there aren’t any Martians up there.
I’m afraid we’re at the point where we just might have to be content letting the aliens come to visit us first.