Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Shuttle Goes Down

I was there the first time around.

As a lifelong Washingtonian, I can remember back to that day in the mid-1980s, as the shuttle Enterprise was flown around the Beltway on the back of a 747.  It was awesome, as a young teen, to watch as it soared by.  I stood on a bikepath overlooking the highway, and the jet roared low and slow overhead so everyone could get a good long look.

It was amazing.  That image, of the iconic silhouette, of the reality of the first orbiter, well, that's still burned into my cortex.  It's an important memory.

It was an emblem of America's commitment to peaceful space exploration.  Oh, sure, the Enterprise herself was just a testbed, a functioning prototype.  But it was a profoundly hopeful thing to witness with my own eyes.  Here was powerfully real evidence of our nation, committed to the future.  We were making it happen.  We were getting it done.   The prototype?  On her way to be stored by the Smithsonian at Dulles, where one day a museum would rise to house her.  Other shuttles, a fleet of them, promised to open low earth orbit to all manner of exploration.  And then?  The future seemed filled with possibilities.

Today, the shuttle Discovery made the same rounds.

Across my Washington DC area social network, there was much excitement.  Pictures snapped from smartphones and culled from local media sources popped and repopped on Facebook.  The local newsradio station hummed with shuttle sightings.

So exciting!  A real spaceship!  Right there in the skies above the Nation's Capital!

I can't quite feel the same excitement now.

In the place of the Discovery, there is nothing.  Oh, there are and were plenty of pipe-dreams.  We'll go to Mars, said a president!  We'll set up a moon base, said a candidate!  Sure we will.  That talk is nothing more than the yarns told by your always-broke uncle, spinning a story about how he's going to make it big from the same sofa he's living on in your grandparents basement.  It's just not real.

We've become a nation that has forgotten the effort required to make things like that happen.  Our drive for space has faltered.  Our capacity for heavy lift to orbit is functionally zero.  We have no real plans to get back on track.  NASA's funding is waning.

Heck, even North Korea, a starving, struggling, mostly insane backwater tyranny, shows more motivation to get into space.   We're content to stick out our thumbs and let the Russians do the work.    Or not do anything at all, except perhaps weaponizing the program so it can be funded covertly.  Going into space as a nation requires resources, which means paying for it, which means taxes.  We've forgotten how to do that after years of being told you can get something for nothing.  That is and always has been the easy lie of charlatans, quacks, and politicians.

So now we have nothing, and are too distracted and unfocused as a nation to even realize we should be ashamed by that reality.

The possibilities that the Enterprise represented have faded.  The future that the Discovery worked towards is not to be seen.

It may yet resurface.   I hope it does.  But today over the skies of Washington came a reminder of how quickly future becomes history, and how easily potential can be lost without both commitment and effort.