I grew up watching space shuttle launches and landings on TV. Like any young boy, space was a fascinating place that I wanted to visit someday. My attempts at reaching space were, alas, limited to baking-soda-and-vinegar-fueled film canisters (remember those?) and model rockets.
The space shuttle Discovery arrived in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, to take up residence at the Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport. Seeing Discovery flying to its final resting place, discolored and beaten up, was a tangible end to all that I had grown up with.
The shuttle and its carrier 747 left Florida at 7:00 in the morning. I arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles a few minutes after 6:00, had gotten a parking spot by 7:15, and had scouted out an excellent photo vantage point on a hill a short time later.
A large crowd slowly gathered around the parking lot of the museum. I stood near an older gentleman who saw one of the very first launches of the space shuttle. A woman nearby had flown to Washington from Germany just to watch the shuttle arrive. Dozens of kids ran around with binoculars, straining to spot the plane on the horizon.
"Daddy, this is boring," one of them commented as we stood waiting.
"It's history," his father responded. "History's boring sometimes, but it's still history."
The crowd was reminiscent of the crowds that would gather to watch the launches of shuttles and the rockets that preceded them. It'd be a whole family gathering, with picnic blankets, lawn chairs, and food, as people spent the day hoping for a glimpse of something amazing. Every hill was crowded with people. Cars would pull over. The other pressures and demands of life stopped for a time.
By 9:30, thanks to a strong tailwind, the shuttle arrived at Dulles, doing a low pass over the airport before heading to the National Mall. There is something truly incredible about a Boeing 747, the pinnacle of American aviation capability, with a space shuttle mounted on top of it, especially when it flies overhead at 1500 feet.
After a tour of the Northern Virginia area, the plane returned to Dulles, circled around once again to burn fuel, and landed. Discovery will most likely never take flight again.
Say what you will about the Cold War, it forced Americans to do great things. A span of only eight years elapsed between the first manned American spaceflight, and the first manned landing on the moon. The literal "space race" between America and the Soviet Union furthered science in remarkable and grandiose ways.
The shuttle, first proposed in the 1960s and developed throughout the Nixon administration, was to be the means by which Americans would visit space on a regular basis and further scientific development and exploration.
The American space program began crumbling throughout the 1980s, as the shuttle entered service. As the Soviet Union began to unravel, the need for a constant technology race weakened. The loss of Challenger in 1986 exposed flaws in leadership throughout NASA, which weakened public interest. Eventually, Americans became complacent with the shuttle program: a need to constantly be better and stronger faded away. After thirty years, it came time to retire the shuttles, with no clear plan for the future.
Throughout the past ten years, NASA has proposed various new space programs, with no clear vision to the American people of what those programs would entail. The future of American space exploration seems most promising in the hands of private companies such as SpaceX, who can pursue goals without fearing a sudden budget cut by Congress.
What the future holds for Americans and space is unclear today. We have become fixated on the here and now, the things that benefit ourselves, the technology that helps us as individuals. Rather than look outwards towards God's creation, we have turned inwards on our own comfort. Space just isn't important to Americans anymore, and thus we have slowly lost a great part of our culture that once defined us.