As I sit writing this post, somewhere high above me, the very last flight of a Space Shuttle is taking place. Being 33 years old, I am of course, a member of the generation who grew up during the second Golden Age of space exploration. When I was a young kid, way back in the dark and distant past of the early 1980’s, NASA’s Space Shuttle was, I think, to every young person the height of human accomplishment.
Humanity had never flown so high, nor so fast ever before. Of course we were wrong. The Mercury and Apollo generations had not only flown faster and higher, as well as far, far further, but they had done it all with technology, that made my pocket calculator look cutting edge.
We’ve had two Golden Ages of spaceflight now. First the pioneering Golden Age. The age of space adventurism. Embodied by first the Mercury, and then the Apollo programs. Back when what was known about space, could be comfortably written on the back of a postage stamp. The time when brave pilots, flung their bodies out of Earths atmosphere on top of what amounted to over-engineered, fireworks.
Then came the second Golden Age, the age of space science. The age of the Shuttle program, the age of the Hubble space telescope and the age that finally gave us a sustainable, permanent foothold in space, with the International Space Station. Well that second Golden Age ends on July 20th.
Some people will question why the ending of NASA’s 30 year-long orbiter project has any impact, on a transwoman from Ireland?
The fact is that I’ve never viewed space exploration by any one nation to be solely in that nations best interests. I more see space exploration as belonging to and being about humanity, and as a furtherance to any prolonged future we might have as a species. I believe that anyone who thinks in detail about Earths history, and the future of the human race, will probably agree with me that, sooner or later we need to move at least some people off of Earth. If for no other reason than the fact that, the planet Earth has killed off 99% of all the species to ever call it home. Our home world is not a friendly place, and sooner or later it will get around to squashing our species like a bug. So better for us all that a seed of our species be settled elsewhere when that does inevitably happen.
But the truth is the main reason for my affection towards Atlantis, and her now retired sister ships, comes from something deeper than a love of science, or a rational fear for the future of my species. No the real reason comes from a deep romantic view of those shuttles, and what they represent.
They represent to me a path to that last avenue available for human exploration. Not just exploration of a place, and let’s face it space is a hell of a big place to explore, but exploration of what it means to be human. The passing of the era of the Space Shuttle represents the final passing of the 20th century. The century that having been both a child and an adult in, I still feel, and probably will always feel, was my century. It represents an ending to both the optimism and pessimism of both the 80’s and 90’s.
Ah hell, let’s call a spade a spade, it represents another Concorde moment.
For the second time in less than 20 years, we as a species are making a grand leap backwards. The first was the ending of civilian supersonic flight, with the grounding of the Concorde. The phasing out of the Shuttle program is the second. For now the human race is to look back instead of forward.
But with the shortsighted vision of national space programs being shortened even more by recessionary time, I live in hope of a third Golden Age. A new age of the civilian astronaut, the age of the next door neighbour astronaut. An age when the vision, courage and desire of a better future by private citizens will lead them and us to greater heights, and more distant goals than the previously nation driven exploration ever could have.
Perhaps, Virgin Galactics, Spaceship One will be seen by future generations as the moment when, real meaningful human space exploration really began. By proving that you don’t need to be a superpower nation, to fly through vacuum and see the Earth as a jewel in the sky.
But for many like myself, who sat up late in the night to watch the shuttle take off on television, (back when they did occasionally show those on Irish and British terrestrial television), they’ll need to create some real life Captain Kirks, to come close to the excitement and romance created by that big, chunky looking spacecraft, sitting on its launchpad, waiting to take all our imaginations and hopes into space with it and its crew.