Saturday, February 02, 2013

Why Space

It's funny how you remember exactly where you were when certain events happen. Most people a generation before remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was shot or when Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. I remember sitting in my grandma's kitchen watching the Berlin Wall fall. I remember my mom calling me to wake me up to watch the events of September 11 unfold on cable news. And as a space nerd, other events are vivid in my memory.

When I was six or seven, my family went on vacation to Disney World and we took a side-trip to Cape Canaveral, home of NASA's new Space Shuttle program. In my young mind, the Disney ride 'Flight to Mars' combined with the visit to NASA to convinced me that I had actually gone to space. Already a huge fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, this trip forever hooked me.

Ten years ago I was on my way to an appointment when my phone started to ring. Over and over. My love of all things space, and especially the Space Shuttle, was no secret so just about everyone who knew me that saw the news gave me a call. I remember driving to my meeting listening for every detail on the radio. I understood what the news meant, so I kept listening for clues why.

Just seventeen years earlier I was sitting in my 4th grade classroom sharing current events. The launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger had already been delayed a couple of times due to weather. The news I heard that morning was that it was finally due to launch. The space nerd that I was (and still am) was eager to share this with the rest of the class. A debate broke out- one of my friends insisted it was delayed again. He spoke with authority- his dad was one of the finalists for the Teacher in Space program that earned Christa McCauliffe a seat on Challenger. We were in class, so there was no way to know who was right and who was wrong. Until a half-hour or so later when another teacher ran in to our room pulling in a TV on its cart. "You need to see this!" she cried.

That event is cemented in my mind. Space was no longer a fantasy of comic books and movies. It was not a novelty stop on a trip to Disney World. It was real, involved real people, and included real risks. From that point on, it has been on my heart to work to reduce the risks and increase the reliability of space travel. If I'd never go to space in my lifetime, I still held on to the youthful dream that possibly my children could. And here I am today.

I recalled that day in January as I heard about Columbia and marvelled how close their dates ocurred. Checking my history it found it odd that almost exactly 19 years before Challenger was the Apollo 1 catastrophe. I deal every day with numbers so this synchronicity seemed too improbable to be true. Trying to find meaning I pondered if God was trying to tell us something.

In the ten years since, and watching the Orbiter Endeavor fly over my work on its final voyage to the California Science Center in LA, I have often wondered "why space"? Besides providing me a paycheck, is there a point anymore? The idea of human exploration, or more so human habitation in space is as far-fetched as ever. Just Thursday an otherwise very reliable Zenit rocket failed to deliver a communication satellite when something went wrong during first-stage burn. Space is still hard. It is still dangerous.

I am reminded of the Tower of Babel. With the Internet allowing world-wide instant communication, are we really any different than the people of that age? And I think of our efforts to explore space- each new discovery introduces more questions: Water on Mars? Hundreds of planets discovered? I watched the movie 'Contact', based on Carl Sagan's masterpiece, and reflected on the eternal questions "where did we come from?" and "why are we here?" and realized we are not any closer to answering those questions than we were then. Maybe even further away.

Is God continuing to confuse the wisdom of the world as he did at Babel? Is he actively preventing us from exploring too far from our home? (Meanwhile Voyager 1 is breaking into the heliopause- the boundary of the Solar System.)

I ask myself these questions and wonder about my place in this vast universe as I look up into the stars and dream.

(photo courtesy NASA via space.com)

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