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The Final Frontier

Posted Sunday, April 18, 2010, at 12:13 PM

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of . . .

When I was a child, one of the most exciting things to ever happen was to have an American walking on the Moon. President Kennedy said we should do it within 10 years of his inauguration not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In 1969, we did it! There was Apollo Fever everywhere.

Every time there was a rocket launch, if it was a school day, all classes would stop and every student and teacher gathered around a television set on top of a wheeled cart with rabbit ears pointed askew. I will never forget those gut wrenching seconds in front of the TV with Walter Cronkite when Apollo 13 was late re-establishing radio contact after re-entry. I still choke up every time I see it on TV or in a movie. Since then, manned space flight has became routine. Who stops to watch a launch these days?

By 1968 NASA was already working on "shuttle" designs. In 1972 the shuttle program became official and Apollo 18 was canceled. The first test flight of the Space Shuttle occurred in 1976 when the Enterprise separated from the back of a 747 to test its ability to land as a glider. During these years, we were still putting men on top of giant ICBM's to get to the Moon, Skylab, and The Handshake in Space with our Soviet counterparts. The first launch of the Shuttle didn't happen until 1981. I remember a great sense of anticipation during that period of time when the Apollo program ended and the Shuttle blasting off into space.

The space shuttle system is old. Some of the technology in the shuttles hasn't been made in many years. The time has truly come to put them into retirement. The end of an era has come.

The space program has been indispensable for our progress. In my lifetime we have for the first time in human history truly been able to see and understand the weather. The sextant and celestial sightings for navigation have been replaced with Global Positioning Satellites. Do you remember when a long distance call would have a second or two delay between you speaking and the other person responding? The Space Shuttle lifted the Hubble Telescope and revealed God as the greatest artist and engineer of all in his layout of the universe. Even velcro and the humble ball point pen were invented for the space program.

Now we are entering another period of anticipation. We have known for years that the Shuttle program was coming to an end. For safety reasons, it has to end. My 1983 Schwin LeTour bicycle was advertized as being "made from the same alloy as the Space Shuttle." Sadly, it gave up the ghost a handful of years ago and did not endure nearly as much as the shuttle itself.

Unfortunately, there is nothing ready to replace the Space Shuttle. The Constellation and Ares programs have just been canceled. Orion, now revived from cancellation to save jobs, will not be ready for lift off for quite some time and appears to be destined as a life raft for the International Space Station. Our next goal, Mars, doesn't yet seem quite clearly defined.

Humans haven't landed on another body since Apollo 17 in December of 1972. Now we won't be sending men into space at all for some time. We will be relying on the Russians for that. They still use rockets, which are literally fueled with kerosene.

Do you remember the predictions that Space Shuttle flights would be as regular as airliner flights? There is hope that private industry and entrepreneurs will pick up the slack. An idea that has been thrown around since the 90s. I would definitely like to see that. For now, we space junkies will have to be patient, hopeful, and filled with anticipation as we wait to discover what will be coming next.

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Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts. My internet has been down for a while as Avenue has been dealing with an outage problem.

As usual, this corner of the Times blogs gets the best reader response. I love it when you "guys" get me to think at least as much reading your comments as I did when writing my column.


-- Posted by Charles Hear on Wed, Apr 21, 2010, at 5:46 PM

Yes I believe we are right when we say we are at the end of an era. But is it really the end, or just the beginning of a new technology era? Back in the 60's space exploration "was" our technology and everything focused around those projects. Space has brought us closer to the heavens, and also spurred the reinvention of data transferring equipment. Starting out with the computer and evolving into the cell phone, now everyone has communication capabilities with the world in the palm of their hand. Not only by voice but by text,pictures and videos transmitted through the airways of space within seconds.

No we are not occupying outer space as we once did in the 60's with rockets and shuttles, but utilizing it more with satelite transmissions for need and necessity as well as entertainment.

So now it is goodby to "the final fronteer" and hello to "beam me aboard Scotty."

-- Posted by Keeping An Open Mind on Tue, Apr 20, 2010, at 1:28 PM

A lot of the progress we made back then was due to the "space race" with the soviets. Our government literally poured money into research institutions and granted NSF funds to promote both direct research and indirect funding to science and math education at all levels.

Once the space race ended, a good deal of that funding started to be reduced, slowing down our scientific progress. I am not saying that we don't have researchers and entrepreneurs today but their collective ages has risen with a lot fewer in the works to take over the reins as the present ones start to retire.

This is why we have a more fierce competition from abroad today. Asia especially [Including subcontinent of India] has continued with the decision to booster science dollars and education and limit spending on individual entitlements.

I am not judging either choice but while one can run out of money for entitlements, one can never have their education taken away. Even if one doesn't get the job they went to school for, they will be more able to compete for existing jobs.

While I too will miss the excitement of new frontiers, I fear it is a sign of much larger sign of decay of our education system in relation to what is being accomplished in other countries.

I think we as a nation came to that fork in the road and are stuck not quite knowing which way to go.

Is what happened to the Arab world going to happen to the US as well? Centuries ago they were the scholars and leaders in math and science and then got "too comfortable" and much of the posturing then resulted in squabbles, divisions, and more fundamentalist leanings that many times lead to a "my way or the highway". Not all mind you as there are still MANY moderate Muslim communities in the world that interact with other societies peacefully and realize that jihad is a personal struggle within themselves to do right. Now the US is starting to have more and more fundamentalist Christian sects who also have the "my way or the highway" stance that limit women's dress code, and hair styles, and condemn even those of other Christian beliefs. Were the 60's our peak and we are now in our decline as well, albeit it still in early stage?

Yes an era has ended, but does it mean a lot more than simple rocket ships and space rocks?

Something to think about at least and maybe prepare for as individuals even if our society isn't. Have a good day.

-- Posted by Jenny Moore on Tue, Apr 20, 2010, at 9:03 AM

I still stop to watch the shuttle launch. And I wasn't even born in the sixties. We shouldn't take space flight for granted.

-- Posted by millertime on Mon, Apr 19, 2010, at 1:29 PM

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