At a little after 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the American space program, literally and metaphorically, touched down for the last time at Dulles International airport near Washington DC.
Piggybacked on a Boeing 747 known as “Lizzie,” the Space Shuttle Discovery made its final flight, closing the door on the last tangible icon of our manned space program.
Discovery will now takes its place at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where hopefully it will do more than mark the end of the “late great” American Space Program while it gathers dust.
Our space program has always been the one government endeavor where successes were celebrated, and tragedies mourned, by every American regardless of politic stripes or ideologically leanings.
NASA is always the first agency to feel the steel of budget slicing. It is too easy to argue that we have problems and priorities that need to be dealt with today on earth — and with the very limited resources available here on earth.
Cynics often look at the exploration of space — where the benefits may or may not be reaped for generations down the road — as being as productive as debating the philosophical conundrum of “determining how many angels could live on the head of pin.”
But ultimately, aren’t these a our better angels? Aren’t we at our best when as Robert Browning said, “A man’s reach exceeds his grasp?”
Much of our current technology was developed in concert with the space program, all to help man create a way to get closer to satisfying his timeless desire to understand what is beyond the stars. If the space program simply becomes a commercial endeavor where progress is measured on a balance sheet, then the vision of innovators and dreamers will always take a backseat to the whims of the bean counters.
One of the last things the Discovery did was take a victory lap high above the National Mall and Capitol.
Like an aging slugger coming to bat for the last time, Discovery got one last well-deserved ovation, not because of what it is today, but what it reminds us about our past and what could still be in our future.
So where should the space program be going in the future? No one seems quite sure, but perhaps with a nod to Captain James T. Kirk, it should head for “the second star to right and straight on till morning.”