CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Space shuttle Atlantis and its six astronauts glided to a safe landing in darkness early Thursday, ending a successful mission to return to work on the international space station.
A safe landing for a space shuttle full of astronauts is something we don’t take for granted – not after watching the Challenger explode on national TV, not after knowing the Columbia had disintegrated above us here in Texas.
Only recently did I realize what a divide there is between my generation (the Baby Boomers) and that of my children when it comes to space flight and exploration. We were there at the beginning, when it was all a Great Adventure. We were glued to our black and white television sets when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. We held our breaths as the Apollo 13 crew struggled to return to earth in the aftermath of "Houston, we’ve got a problem." But return they did — for us, space flight was more than a mere accomplishment; it represented a huge victory in the "space race" over our arch-rivals, the Soviet Union.
My kids, on the other hand, grew up with memories that were not nearly so positive. Shuttle flights had become somewhat routine. The media didn’t make much of a big deal about it and they weren’t particularly aware of it – until the first "teacher in space." The schools played that one up for all it was worth – so the first real memories my kids have about space flight are those of sitting in a classroom and seeing the "space teacher" they’d gotten to know over the last weeks blown up in the first big U.S. space accident.
Maybe that’s the reason why, despite growing up watching Star Trek and other space operas, neither is a big fan of real life space exploration. Or maybe it’s partially because of those TV shows and movies, and the big disconnect between them – where space travel is so safe that no one even wears a seat belt, even when engaged in intergalactic warfare – and what they’ve seen of the reality of space travel. Or maybe it’s because space flights don’t really go anywhere these days; the shuttles seem little more than high powered commuter planes, going back and forth to the space station. We no longer explore new worlds. We don’t boldly go where no man has gone before. We haven’t even made it to Mars, almost forty years after the lunar landing. Forget Mars – we haven’t even been back to the moon in decades.
Space travel doesn’t seem to be much of a priority to the younger generations. I think it’s because they don’t believe it really yielded anything useful. But those of us who grew up with the dream know that it can.
When someone as prominent as Stephen Hawking declares space travel necessary for the survival of the human race, it’s time to sit up and take note. Hawking was roundly criticized for those statements, but it seems pretty logical, if you take a good look at the world today, that we’re going to need someplace else to go someday. Humanity expanded across oceans to the "new world," but there are no new worlds left on this world. Space really is the final frontier, but it’s an almost infinite one.
President Bush has expressed a desire to expand the space program again, to support manned flights to the moon again, eventually to Mars — and perhaps someday, beyond. He’s a baby boomer; he still remembers the dream. I only hope we can somehow light a spark in our children’s and grandchildren’s eyes to reawaken that old dream. Whether it’s the only hope for our long-term survival or not, it may be the only hope for the survival of the can-do spirit that made this country great.
Meanwhile, we have the space shuttle. And it’s safely back home again. The more successful missions we have to counterbalance the space tragedies our kids grew up with, the better the chances for a renewal of our quest into space in the future.