From an Odd Perspective


I can still remember the time I got to see the Enterprise.  No, not the actual model from the show hanging at Quark’s Bar in Vegas.  That was cool.  But what was cooler was seeing the real thing.  The Enterprise, the odd man out of the shuttle fleet, the full-size mock-up intended to provide atmospheric testing for the new crafts that would take astronauts into orbit.  It was meant to join them one day, to be retrofitted, but that day never came.  Unlike its namesake, it was named for the Star Trek vessels after all, not for any of the earthbound Enterprises that came before it, the Shuttle Enterprise was doomed to a planet-bound life.

And yet.  It’s still a space shuttle.

I saw it at the Udvar-Hazy annex of the Air and Space Museum, a massive white-and-black thing that looks almost like the offspring of a plane and a killer whale.  And I stood there until my wife dragged me off to look at the rest of the museum.  I was transfixed.  Here was this thing, constructed by human hands, intended for space.  It never got there, but that’s still a lot closer than I’m going to come.  Soon the Enterprise will be gone, replaced by the Discovery.  The Smithsonian will be upgrading from the ship that never got to go into space to the one that went there the most.

And that, really, is the problem.

Discovery is available as a museum piece because it was decommissioned March 9, 2011.  Columbia and Challenger were lost.  Endeavour is done.  And this Friday, if things go according to schedule, Atlantis will lift off for the last time.

There are any number of articles bemoaning the retirement of the shuttles.  In a way, it’s time.  The grand dame of the fleet, Columbia, first launched in 1981.  They’ve served science and humanity well in the 30 years hence, they deserve a rest.  But there’s no replacement in place.  They’re planned, but we’re about to go into a period in US spaceflight unimaginable since the first Mercury missions: a period without US spaceflight.

In the end, I look at this not as a writer of speculative fiction, but as a fan of it.  I grew up with stories of humanity spreading out among the stars.  And while horrors sometimes awaited us, more often then not wonders did as well.  Places, people, and experiences unimaginable here on earth.  And while I know these are all fictions and fantasies, there’s something about human space flight that helps propagate those dreams.  It creates that feeling that we’re pushing towards that future, that we’re trying to reach beyond and come into contact with something else, anything else, rather than what we’ve grown up with, as a species, here on earth.

And now, with the retirement of the shuttles, we’re putting that dream on hold.  It feels almost as though we’re delaying that possible future.  Certainly the shuttles weren’t pushing us further and further into space.  And argument could even be made that they were holding us back.  They were designed only to go so far, and as the backbone of the space fleet we were wedded to their limitations.  But in the end, it still meant that we were putting people into space.

The dream is still there.  We still have our fiction to carry us forward and to imagine what the future may hold.  But unlike when I was younger, it’s harder to imagine how we’re going to get there.  And with the shuttles going silent, one by one, there are now fewer avenues for the imagination to wander down.  Hopefully the future will see us return to space, and perhaps to even push beyond the orbital limit of the shuttles.  We may one day laugh at the fact that we were so tied to low earth orbit.

At least, I hope.

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