The launch of a space shuttle can still make you weep with amazement and wonder, if you happen to be watching it. In May, my family and I stood with a group of thousands at Cape Canaveral waiting for one of the last planned launches (the last is tentatively scheduled for early next year). It was hot and we were penned in to a set of bleachers a few miles away, and yet no one seemed to be complaining about heat or thirst. We sang the national anthem and counted down in tandem with the giant red numbers on a clock. It seemed impossible that such a large, heavy object could leave the ground or that any people would agree to go with it, given past disasters, and yet they did. The ground rumbled and the orbiter Atlantis shot off in a straight line, going up and up until it disappeared out of sight, leaving a trail of white smoke. We looked up into the sky for what seemed like hours (it was about three minutes), until it was gone. “Where’d it go?” one kid asked her father. “Poof,” he answered, and even to us adults, that made sense—it felt as if Dumbledore, or maybe God, had grabbed that rocket and the six men inside and taken them to another dimension, leaving only smoke and awe behind.
Merely reading about a shuttle launch cannot remotely convey that same kind of thrill. The wire stories about the Atlantis’s liftoff, which were picked up mostly by smaller newspapers, explained that its mission was to deliver cargo and spare parts to the International Space Station, including six new batteries to provide station power; the details made NASA sound like a sort of giant intergalactic hardware store offering delivery service. When the shuttle returned 12 days later, news stories mentioned that it might find a proper home in a museum. In April, President Barack Obama traveled to Kennedy Space Center to confirm that he will stick with plans to retire the shuttle program. “We can’t just keep on doing the same old things that we’ve been doing,” he said. He also defended his plan to cancel Constellation, NASA’s next program for manned space flight, which he has called “lacking in innovation.” (Congress has not yet agreed, and Obama did confirm his commitment to deep-space exploration and a future mission to Mars, but we’re a long way away from launching such a trip.) The space shuttle itself is an amazing feat of engineering, has brought about many scientific advances, and has deepened our knowledge about the galaxy. But it has largely failed to spark the national imagination. From the perspective of space enthusiasts, the whole program seems to have done “the same relatively minor experiments over and over,” says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. What human space exploration needs, Friedman rightly points out, is a “better story.”
Back in the 1960s, the story was obvious. Space travel tapped into the grand narrative of our dominance over the Russians in the larger battle between good and evil. In the movie version of The Right Stuff, one of the test pilots describes the sound barrier as a “demon” who lives in the sky and had to be conquered, while the Lyndon B. Johnson character says, “I, for one, don’t want to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon.” But the Cold War is long over, and to some extent, so too is the idea of limitless national possibility. These days, the technological advances that get us fired up have to do not with outward exploration but with maximizing our own efficiency—better and more-versatile phones, for instance.
When my family and I were touring the NASA facilities, we caught glimpses of the old glory days. NASA projects often have romantic names that link into a long history of exploration and adventure: Atlantis and Discovery, for example. The astronauts roaming the grounds still carry the aura of heroes, particularly for the children, who gasped every time they saw one. Awesome pictures from the Hubble telescope line the halls, offering a window into our galaxy and beyond. NASA books and merchandise in the gift shop raise profound philosophical questions: “Imagine knowing that we are not alone, but that life is abundant in our solar system and throughout the universe.”
But the most compelling story unfolding was a human one that brought us very much back to Earth. In one facility, I talked to an engineer who was checking the tiles on a shuttle being prepared for the next launch. What would he be doing once the program ends, I asked him. “Standing on the unemployment lines,” he said.