The last ever Space Shuttle, the Atlantis, touched down yesterday marking the end of the 30 year old NASA project. My initial thought was, ‘Well, that’s another giant leap backward for Mankind’ and felt vaguely depressed by direction humanity has decided to return to – inward looking, money-obsessed, war-mongering, looking after our own, seeing only the short term, small minded, barely evolved primates that we are. We suck. Or so I thought.
There have been those who have criticized the program claiming that it didn’t really achieve all that much and cost too much money. I disagree. The program pretty much built the International Space Station for a start. This has allowed for the study of various things, including the biological feasability of long-term space travel. Essential if we want to go to Mars. It has also launched the Hubble Telescope which has led to countless breakthroughs and discoveries. Plus some awesomely beautiful pictures.
If the human race wants to survive, we need to get off this planet. There are too many of us and there is no way to stop the increase. If you disagree, you’re bascically condemning future billions to horrible deaths from rising sea levels or famine or an eventual killer virus or asteroid or triffid attack. Nice thinking.
So did the Space Shuttle program end this inevitable threat of impending overpopulation? No. But it has helped pave the way by taking a few small practical steps in the right direction.
Most importantly though, it allowed mankind to dream. Man walking on the moon has always topped any poll of Mankind’s Greatest Moments. It is the quest to explore boundaries and achievements of projects like the Space Shuttle that lift humans above the animals and News of the World investigators (sorry – cheap shot). It inspires us to look to the stars. To think on a bigger scale. To look forward beyond a generation or two for a change.
Otherwise what has been the point? Eventually a huge meteor will hit and our civilisation will end. If you cynically think that perhaps that is a good thing as humanity not a nice beast, then you can piss off as it is unlikely that you will be the one suffering or dying – it will be your great grandkids. Along with us will go all our art, literature, movies, the lot. There will be literally no point in our having struggled against the odds to get to where we are if we just turn inwards and obsess over credit crunches and who has the most natural resources. We need to escape this petty ape-like tribal mentality.
Luckily it isn’t all going to end. Even though tons of NASA staff have been fired, things go on. India, China, Europe and Russia for example are still plugging away. Trips to the Space Station are still leaving from Russia. China hopes to be on the moon by 2022, and Japan and India plan on a moon base by 2030. (With the latter three countries there will at least be some decent food up there.)
Also, excitingly, individual companies are entering the fray. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are offering flights into space for £200,000, which is very cool. The futuristic-sounding ‘SpaceX’ seems to be taking over where NASA has left off. SpaceX was founded by a Paypal co-founder with the awesome name Elon Musk who paid $100million of his own money. Funnily enough, he states that it was the bureaucracy of space agencies that made it so expensive and the end of the Shuttle will make space travel cheaper and quicker. I love the idea of billionaires with passion getting us in space.
So while it is sad to see the Shuttle program end, the quest for space seems to be gathering momentum. Ironically, it is being driven by the same urges I complained about at the start. There are a lot of resources out there and there are a lot of millionaires who will pay to be in space down here. It can all be very lucrative. Whoever colonizes the moon first will have a strong position to exploit this situation. It is likely there will be similar disputes over moon ownership as there currently is over who is allowed on Antarctic. But at least the tribal humans will be squabbling on another planetary body. It’s a start.
No matter what the motives though, I don’t really care. As long as we are boldy going somewhere, I will be happy.