Recently Atlantis left earth for one last waltz among the stars.
Like many who watched her departure I was a space brat, raised in the shadow of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
Thousands of men and women from NASA and their contractors spent countless hours in the design, manufacture and assembly of every onboard component. Many of those involved had kids like me who didn’t see their parents much as the project gained momentum.
My father was an engineer with Honeywell’s aerospace division, who provided the electronic control system for the Space Shuttle main engines. Its purpose was to detect mechanical issues prior to liftoff. If a performance malfunction was identified, the controllers would shut down the main engines and wouldn’t permit the launch.
When Columbia first roared into the skies on April 12, 1981, my proud Dad finally witnessed the fruits of his labor. We felt a tremendous thrill each time a shuttle launch was visible from our Florida home, or when a sonic boom rattled our windows signaling its return to earth.
It was three decades of awesome.
On the morning of Atlantis’ final liftoff, it was plain that the launch pad crew was feeling the pain. For some it was the end of the line, having worked in the shuttle program for its entire thirty year run.
Many NASA workers have been or will be pink-slipped. No shuttle means no jobs, and as of yet there are no big projects waiting in the pipeline to justify keeping them on the payroll.
The astronauts, America’s pioneers of the final frontier are also disappearing from the landscape. I was nine years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon as the world held its collective breath. Like most people in my age group, I can’t remember a time that there wasn’t someone preparing to blast off into space.
I would have gladly surrendered five years of my life for the chance to join them.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of mind boggling scientific microgravity experiments – some of which led to better medicines and treatments for those who desperately need them as well as identifying factors that may lead to future cures? Additionally the shuttle program made a huge contribution to technology by repairing existing satellites and sending new satellites into service. How cool would it be capture, fix a malfunctioning satellite and return it to orbit?
None of the shuttle’s successes would have been possible without those who worked on the program; from the rivet guys to the engineers to the shuttle commanders. They immersed themselves in a project to benefit mankind and worked it until the job was completed, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Fourteen astronauts paid the ultimate price.
Some say that space exploration is a gross waste of financial resources. After all in a hurting world there are other more pressing needs.
But the prevailing comments I’ve heard in the last few months have been sad, wistful and wishing that manned space flight wasn’t over.
In every way that counts most of our country is in pain; financially, morally, politically, spiritually. If joy were rain, we’d be in a ten year drought. Sometimes after I watch the news, I want to shoot myself.
Because much of what we buy is imported from other countries and an increasing number of jobs are offshored and or outsourced, many Americans have resigned themselves to circling the drain.
If we ever needed a morale boost, it’s now.
Having grown up in an atmosphere where incredible feats occurred on a regular basis has proven to me that Americans can accomplish whatever they put their minds to. Failure was not and should not be an option. Our trailblazing history gives me hope that one day we can turn the car around.
Will it be expensive to keep NASA bankrolled so they’ll be able to continue pursuing the final frontier? No doubt.
But our government regularly throws money at stupid projects like $500,000 to study jogging shrimp, or $6 million for a snow-making facility in Duluth, MN. If we can afford to dole out bucks for idiotic crap, and excuse super rich individuals and corporations from paying taxes that could fund our financial recovery we can afford to reach for the stars, giving our country a new sense of pride.
NASA has historically provided scores of jobs within its own agency as well stimulating job creation in a plethora of associated industries. Putting people back to work is a positive move in the right direction.
We Americans still have it in us to make the world’s collective jaws drop in awe. But we must first believe in ourselves.
We need the best of the best to remind us of how it’s done. NASA is just the place to find them.
Michelle Close Mills (c)