Monday, May 16, 2011

The End Of An Era For Endeavour

The Endeavour Space Shuttle, commanded by Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, blasted off for its final voyage this morning. Rep. Giffords was able to make the trip back to Florida, and watched her husband take off into space.

The liftoff of Endeavour was, in short, spectacular:

I love that this video shows how fast Endeavour is moving through space. It is just mind boggling.

"Expanding our knowledge, expanding our lives, in space."

It is impossible, at least for me, to not be moved by the liftoff itself, and for what this voyage of Endeavour represents - the second to last space shuttle liftoff. One final launch of the Atlantis in July, and the program is ended. At this point, future plans for our space program are still a bit uncertain. No doubt, the corps of astronauts will continue to be reduced, and space enterprises will become private affairs (think Richard Branson), less US Government:
[snip] It's the beginning of the end of the US astronaut corps as generations of Americans have known it. Fifty years after its birth, the astronaut program – one of America's most iconic ventures and an integral part of the nation's self-image – is undergoing a transformation.

The program, to be sure, won't vanish. But as the final two shuttles – the astronauts' main ride into space – are retired and funding for space ventures dwindles, the nation's astronaut corps will become smaller, its role redefined, and more of the space duties likely turned over to private firms.

The move will accelerate the corps's transition from a group once dominated by test pilots to one increasingly made up of scientists and specialists who can live on the International Space Station (ISS) for extended periods, conducting experiments and doing everything from cleaning air filters to cooking meals.

Nor will the astronauts likely be as visible. In the early years of the space program, they were national heroes – John Waynes in moon suits. Virtually everything they did was pioneering – the first American to journey around the Earth, the first American spacewalk, the first human on the moon. To this day, Neil Armstrong's line – "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" – is one of the most quoted phrases in the English language. The astronauts graced the cover of magazines. Books were written about them.

With the advent of the shuttle program, journeys into space became more regular, the feats more commonplace. Today, as the astronauts undergo another transition, their identities may become even more anonymous, their work more quotidian, to the extent working 210 miles above Earth can be quotidian. Yet the astronaut corps remains a source of fascination to many Americans – and will remain an integral, if diminishing, part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[snip] (Click here to read the rest of this informative article.)

As this period of space exploration comes to an end, I cannot help but think of the president who first supported its development, and the subsequent results:

As Buzz Lightyear would say, "To Space, and Beyond!" I hope that the opportunity to do so will long continue...

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