Posted by: cousindampier | 24 July 2011

Thoughts on Space Flight from the Southern Hemisphere

“And a banner carried into orbit aboard the final shuttle flight said it all, ‘Houston.’ Always the  first word in space. Thank you!’ it reads.” – Aviation Week’s On Space

Somewhere – I forget where I read it – a writer argued that the pinnacle of human achievement was putting men on the moon.

Initially, I found this a rather outlandish point for two reasons. First, surely there are other grand achievements humankind accomplished? Second, the American space program is something rarely celebrated. The thinking about it seems to be, ‘of course we put men on the moon. Why wouldn’t we?’

I grew up learning about the Apollo missions, and the superstar astronauts of the 1960’s.  Because of this basis, the shuttle program always seemed a bit boring to me during the 90’s. Once I was able to access pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, that all changed. The sheer amount of knowledge behind those photographs is exciting. To ponder distant worlds I could not – and cannot – concieve of; of stars in their earliest formation and dying throes; of black holes and red giants and the ever-continuing quest for earth-like planets makes me re-evaluate not studing science and physics and making something out of thoses interests, because in reading about those discoveries I wish I could be a part of making them.

In a typical middle-America kid fashion, I grew up wanting to be a fireman, then when that died off, I wanted to be an astronaut. At some point when I was 10 or 11, I went to listen to a Shuttle commander speak. When the time for questions came, I asked if astronauts were allowed to wear glasses, aware that fighter pilots often were not. He said yes. It was the first time in my life I ever felt extreme relief.

Now Atlantis is down and the shuttle will fly no more and they will become monuments in musems across the nation. I understand why, but it remains a sad day. Public-funded space travel is a luxury, because of the largeamount of money invested into the program, That is key. Some people willargue space travel is inessential, given the larger problems America faces, but that point misses the larger theme: it is inessential because of the expense only. The notion of going into space and discovering how the universe works is as essential a component to humankind as was learning to cross an ocean.

What also seems pertinent at the moment, because of the psychotic discussions about the debt ceiling, is the unifying aspect of space. I always appriciated how spaceflight was referred to in the ‘humankind’ as opposed to any specific nationality. Perhaps one of the farthest-reaching agreements between the Americans and Soviets was the one to refrain from militarizing space. It is the furthest frontier in human discovery, and sectioning off bits of it for nations would bring such harm. It is the one true collective arena, and everyone can only hope it remains as such.

James Cook is likely the greatest explorer to ever live. If Yuri Gargarin and Al Shepard mark the Columbus moment in space – getting there and back – than the Cook moment is probably Apollo 11. Cook made it to Tahiti and back, touched New Zealand, and opened a vast frontier with more precision than had been known before. Cook’s last voyage is Apollo 17 – the last mission to a faraway unknown. And the shuttle flights became all those voyages in the Pacific during the 1800’s, from any and every nation, occasionally mapping something more precise and discovering the outlet of some major river or a new island.

The more I think about the notion of Apollo 11 being the pinnacle of human existence, the more I am inclined to agree with it. It remains the ultimate in discovery. Humans took step on a planet which was not earth. That event remains the culmination of science, discovery, techology, and the human spirit.

So what comes next? The era of discovery is never over. So while there may be no more American missions to space, there will still be missions, and people will keep pushing the frontier further. Humankind has already semi-permanently colonized space, though it remains the small portion beyond the earth. Given the amount of computing power and technological skill, probes and satellites will predominate until the next human move is made – to the moon, at some point in the next fifty years (if the economy doesn’t implode). Much like drones against fighter pilots, there is a place for each.

The southern hemisphere is oriented towards the galactic center, and therefore contains brighter and more numerous stars. So tonight – or as soon as it clears – I will wander outside with my star guide and run until I find a spot unaffected by the few lights of Okahune, and look up at the stars. And like anyone who has ever stood at the edge of an ocean, or like Columbus when he stood in Galway, Ireland, or like Bartholomew Dias when he made it around the bulge of Africa, I will wonder what else is out there, and enjoy how sheerly beautiful space is.

Oh yes, I can still name every Apollo crew by heart except 15. I always have trouble with 15.




  1. Scott/Worden/Irwin, of course! And Irwin went on to become a Jesus freak.

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