I once earned a living designing guidance systems for missiles. I am an electrical engineer, and I followed religiously the New York Times‘ John Noble Wilford’s fantastic coverage of the space program, and much else besides. How poignant that the chronicler of Apollo 11 and America’s other great space triumphs was on hand to chronicle the Shuttle’s final flight.
Wilford’s bookend stories chronicle the declining ambitions and imagination of an American space enterprise that lost its way long ago. That enterprise began in Cold War fear of Soviet space achievements. John Kennedy’s challenged our nation to put a man on the moon and to return him safely (yes this was a more sexist era) before the decade was out. Alongside the good and bad of the 1960s, my parents’ generation met that challenge. My father, also an engineer, helped in that effort.
NASA cannot be blamed for the fact that no other manned mission could possibly match the jaw-dropping moment of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. Nor could any other mission match the pictures (here from Apollo 10) of our own earth rising, as seen from the moon.
It’s sad to see the shuttle program end. Yet in hindsight, the shuttle and the space station with which it was connected were misconceived, ill-executed, and overly costly ventures. They crowded out more worthy and scientifically valuable ventures. Unmanned space flight offers many more opportunities to explore the solar system, to monitor the earth itself, to study the physics of the sun and the stars.
Cancellation of the Webb space telescope was a more serious blow to space science than the demise of the shuttle. More generally, our society’s capacity to identify and to achieve big things, our capacity to appreciate and to collectively support the broader scientific enterprise, is not what it once was or what it needs to be.
Wilford’s story begins:
There was a time, some of us remember, when a countdown at Canaveral stopped the world in its tracks. On television or at the launching, every breath was held at liftoff and every eye followed the fiery plume of ascent, up and away. Godspeed, said someone who was everyone.
I remember that.