Into the wild blue yonder
Last Friday, the space shuttle Atlantis broke Earth's gravity, headed for the international space station. It marked the last space shuttle launch.
While this is not the end of the space program, Atlantis' final journey marks a major point on a long, downward trajectory, not least for the 25,000 workers who will suffer directly from the program's end. These days, the government spends more on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan than on NASA.
Appropriately, today is the 42nd anniversary of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," the classic lament of a doomed astronaut:
Let's not get too altruistic here, either. The space program's heyday came about in large part because Americans and their government viewed it as part of a greater war against the USSR.
Still, NASA's zenith proved something: we can go to space. We can send people to space. The resources exist. The technology is there. Hell, at this point the technology is old.
The only remaining question is: do we want to? When people look out at their society and think "what do I want us to do?" is "go to space, and keep going" on the list?
Not for a long time. People can talk efficiency all they wish, but governments have proven perfectly capable of spending larger sums on far more questionable things (remember all that air conditioning?). The program's death marked a deeper turn.
Partly, the shift came from space travel's birth, tied to the Cold War and '50s hubris. By the era's end, people were, rightly, tired of the damn struggle, and anything associated with it. "Space Oddity" was one early marker, the increasing skepticism of science fiction another.
"Fighting the commies" was never the whole reason, of course. Space exploration had real popular appeal for a long time, tapping into a primal grandeur, combined with humanity's explorational urge. But, forever tied to far-off dividends and the conflict that created it, the whole enterprise proved vulnerable to accusations that the only thing all that money created was "garbage floating in the sky," as Ursula LeGuin's infamously dismissed.
Defenders could even point to more immediate benefits, like the ridiculous amount of more down-to-earth devices spawned by space research. It didn't help. This is the kind of popular argument won in the heart, not the head.
The fact is, the populace at large decided space travel wasn't a priority. It lost its glamour, its war, its money and its support. There were other fears, other dangers. Everything that's followed, from the lack of cutting edge spacecraft to the shuttle's end, is all part of that downward spiral.
So here's the question: we decided to give up on space travel. What did we get instead?
Was it worth it?