The Space Shuttle Atlantis is in the midst of her final flight. And it’s also the last scheduled manned mission of the U.S. space program. NASA’s future launches are all for satellites and rockets. Very pretty, but people’s hopes and dreams follow people, not hardware. Our hearts lift when they can ride the wings of another’s fulfilled dream, and imagine ourselves at their side, or in their place.
I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: Enterprise recently. While opinions on the series itself may vary, what still grabs me is the montage of images in the opening title sequence. If you always skipped that part, watch it again carefully. Ignore the music if you feel you must.
What gets me every time is that all of the images consist of archival footage up until the last six, when the sequence changes by showing the International Space Station as it should look when it is complete. But all the images, real and science fictional, show humankind’s relentless pursuit of what is beyond the next hill, what is on the other side of the fathomless depths of the ocean, what is out in the vast depths of space.
There are reproductions of old maps of the earth including navigational charts. A shot of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft voyage across the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki. The Wright brothers’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Amelia Earhart waving “good-bye,”possibly for the final time. Charles Lindbergh next to his famous plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, which is preserved at the National Air and Space Museum. A scene of Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, writing his theories on a blackboard. Chuck Yeager striding away from the experimental aircraft with which he broke the sound barrier. Pictures of a succession of historic ships which all bore the name “Enterprise”, culminating in the experimental Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1977. The crew of Apollo 11 boarding their spacecraft, and then that “one small step for mankind”. A closeup of the Mars Rover exploring. And, a shuttle crew in flight and on a spacewalk.
A friend wrote of the end of the Shuttle Program that the spirits of those who perished in the Challenger and Columbia disasters could finally rest in peace now. I firmly believe that he is wrong. Those who gave their lives in the space program, on Challenger, and Columbia, and with first Apollo disaster at the beginning of the program, made their sacrifice so that humankind could reach further, so we could make our way into the stars. Those astronauts dreamed of space, not safety.
The quote from William Shedd still says it best. “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Humankind is not made to be safe. We are made to be explorers. Why have we stopped?