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CBS Sunday Morning is one of my guilty pleasures.  I’m not sure when Erin and I discovered it, or what was on that drew us in so quickly, but it has since become a show that we rarely miss.  It is understated, relaxed, self-deprecating, and informative, like a humble history professor who chats with you over lattes.

In its subtle approach, however, it can be deeply moving.  Today, I found myself quieted by a story on the Space Shuttle.  Yep, I was moved by the loss of a piece of technology that, by many accounts, was a spectacular failure.

I’m a nerd.  No one can dispute that, least of all me.  And I have a soft spot for technology because, long ago, my grade 7/8 shop teacher once told me that I would make an excellent engineer.  (Mr. Moulder was one of the few male teachers that I had that wasn’t grossly disappointed by my lack of masculine talents (sports, hunting, gathering a harem of females to further my genetic line, etc.).)

The Challenger exploding on liftoff.

My mom still tells me about when she watched the Challenger disaster on TV while I was at school.  Being in kindergarten, I didn’t really understand or register what had happened when she told me about it, but it has become one of those manufactured memories that our parents build for us by repetition.  I remember what our old TV looked like, what my mother looked like then, and I can imagine her shock when space travel suddenly changed from glorious and heroic to wastefully dangerous.

I can remember my very first real memory of NASA’s Space Shuttle: my father gave me a model of the Columbia when I was about seven years old, along with the promise that he would help me build it later.  (I snapped it together myself in an act of creative defiance that I think he may resent to this day.)

I’ve been to the Kennedy Space Center on a number of Florida trips, and I am always moved by the grand scale of NASA’s space program.  The fields filled with rockets and boosters and fuel tanks that seem too large to be real; the mockups of control centres with technology that looks barely advanced enough to word-process, much less guide men and women to the moon; the site of the Apollo 1 disaster that killed Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee in 1967; all of it leaves me breathless and dizzy.

Meeting and interacting with an actual shuttle pilot made such things even more incredible to me.  Colonel Chris Hadfield went to the same high school as I did, and he came back in my grade twelve year to speak to the school about his experiences in space, docking with Mir (before it fell out of the sky, of course), and what happens when a Russian cosmonaut eats an entire box of maple candies all in a sitting while in microgravity.  He even taught a select group of us (nerds and teacher’s pets) the physics of space flight and orbital velocities, after which he signed posters and talked with each of us in turn.

The crew of the Columbia Shuttle.

When I was twenty-two, I watched the news reports as Columbia broke apart on re-entry, killing everyone on board.  It was the day after I had purchased a book on the history of the space program.  I still can’t look at the book on my shelf without feeling a shiver run down my spine.

And now the end is in sight for the shuttles.  The last planned launch is for the Atlantis on July 8 of this year, and then the whole fleet (or what is left of it) will likely end up in displays at places like the Kennedy Space Center.  Abby will never watch a shuttle launch on television in her memory.  She’ll never see one land.  (Chris Hadfield said they have the gliding properties of a shopping cart, and that they are even harder to fly once you put down the landing gears.)

I have a friend whose father works in the aerospace industry, and she is quick to point out that the bulk of what goes into orbit is commercial or military satellites, that they get used to rot our brains or guide missiles more accurately to blow up villages or whatnot.  Space ventures are rarely in the name of pure science and exploration anymore.  Humanity seems to have lost the wonder of the cosmos that had defined our species for the last few millennia.

But today I watched Charles Bolden, NASA’s Administrator, cry as he spoke about wanting his grandchildren to see people land on another heavenly body the way he saw men first land on the moon in 1969.  I couldn’t help but be moved as well.

Exploration is a fundamental human drive.  We want to know what’s out there.  We imagine what lies across the seas, beyond the deserts, and behind the mountains.  We want to stand on distant shores.  As Kennedy said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Space travel is expensive, dangerous, and mostly wasteful.  Fair enough.  But to break the bonds of gravity, to push beyond our atmosphere and float in the vast emptiness of space, to want to fly past the surface of another planet solely to bask in its grandeur for a moment, to dare to dream of standing on its foreign soil; what price are we willing to pay for that? 

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