I've always had an interest in the space program. Growing up, my family and I would spend weekends during the summer at our family's lake cottage, where an impressive telescope was in residence. Away from the bright lights of suburbia, my grandfather would swing the telescope toward the front bay window and point in the direction of the night sky. I'd look at the stars and imagine that I could see right past them to the heart of the universe. When I was eleven, my family took a trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we actually got to see Mission Control. I knew I wasn't science or math-minded enough to ever actually get a job in the sciences, but I have always loved the space program. The ambition of it. The ability and drive inside of people that pushes them to break through physical and mental barriers to achieve something beyond themselves. I believe that the space program has been one of our truest, most noble endeavors as a species. It represents what is good about us, and what we can accomplish when we stand at the crux point of science and imagination.
I watched the last space shuttle launch with my class this morning. It was an amazing experience. In that room, watching the live feed as the shuttle gathered power to leave the earth, it didn't matter what country we came from or what language we spoke. We were the same because we could all appreciate what we were capable of as a people.
I don't mean for this post to be maudlin, or to polemicize about the end of the manned space program. While I strongly disagree with the decisions that have been made to gut the space program (or at least to freeze its budget until 2016), I do not think that today is the end of exploration. There will be other opportunities for us to discover our universe and other areas much closer to home. Divers have snapped the first photos of a fish that uses tools, and Italian archaeologists recently uncovered a skeleton which they believe to belong to Lisa Gherardini, the model for da Vinci's Mona Lisa. There's a whole lot more out there for us to find; we just have to be willing to open our eyes to see it.
In the meantime, check out this photo retrospective of the space shuttle program by the Denver Post. There are some truly stunning images there.