Secondary Emissions

Last Spaceship from Earth

A tweet my daughter reposted:

"If you watch NASA backwards, it's about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon."

 Am I sad about the final flight of the Space Shuttle? Somewhat, but I'm not sure exactly how sad I am. After the intense experience of the lunar program, from Mercury through the triumph of Apollo 11,and on through Apollo 17, in 1972. After Eugene Cernan came home, human space flight largely lost its ability to inspire me.

In the context of the Disneyland rid-coupons of the era, human spaceflight went from an E-coupon ride (the big ones) to a D or C-coupon ride (the ones you had to take your kid sister on). Yes, the shuttle revealed itself to be capable of killing astronauts, and, working alone and in cooperation with the International Space Station, it delivered far more scientific and engineering information than the moon program, but it was inherently terrestrial. People were looking down, rather than up.

Looking outward, away from Earth, became the realm of robotics. We could send astronauts up to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, but the astronauts doing the repairs couldn't look through it -- that was the privilege of people down in Pasadena. Meanwhile, other people explored Mars and the further reaches of space, optically, tactilely, and chemically, through robotic means.

That is literally wonderful, but it breaks my heart. I grew up on space opera science fiction. (And some hard stuff. I still love Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, which one might term "space opera with a sliderule," but if I start comparing science fiction authors and putting them into genres, we'll be here all day. Yet one more question -- who knows which issue of Analog I got one of my own stories into?)

Where was I? Right, a longing to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and the reasons why, while I respect the Shuttle astronauts, I'm not as unhappy about the end of the Shuttle era as I was about the likely end of manned extraplanetary exploration for the duration of my lifetime, and probably yours.

I'm not alone in my mixed feelings. Here's a link to an unsigned op-ed titled After the Shuttle, in the New York Times, from Friday, the day after the final shuttle landing.  

Here's the future. It's nothing to be ashamed of: NASA Picks Rover Destination: Mountain on Mars, but the romance of it is of a different order.  

Nostalgia aside, here's what you urgently need to email your representatives about: Panel Proposes Killing Webb Space Telescope  

Finally, a lighter note about human space exploration -- here's a book review that my daughter posted in her blog. She's a grad student in CS at the University of Washington. The review is about Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach. Kathleen says:  

"I love love love the montages in TV shows and movies of astronauts preparing for space travel. Like that one episode of the Simpsons and the movie Armageddon and this movie that I loved when I was younger but turned out to be painfully awful when I re-watched it, Rocket Man.

"This book is the extended version of that, plus it's factual and super detailed. There's a story about an astronaut on a space walk not wanting to return to the spaceship because he's so euphoric floating there and looking at Earth, and chapters on poop and space sex and space sexual relation drama (e.g. what happens in space stays in space). Also, after reading this book, I do NOT want to go to space myself because it sound super gross being in a tiny smelly spaceship where gravity and toilets and showers don't work properly. But the book itself, I highly recommend reading it. "Everything you wanted to know about space travel and it will make you super sad to get to the end and realize/remember that the SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM is now OVER."

And so I close with that same tweet: "If you watch NASA backwards, it's about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon."

That makes me sad.

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