In the last few years, we’ve heard a lot of bad news about NASA. Every federal agency has suffered budget cuts, and NASA is no exception. The Space Shuttle program has ended, the ExoMars mission has been canceled, and the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope has skyrocketed so much it sucks up most of whatever money NASA has left.
But yesterday the Space Shuttle Discovery, perched atop a modified 747, flew over Washington D.C. It was something of a victory lap before the veteran spacecraft went into retirement as a museum piece at the Smithsonian. People skipped work and pulled their kids out of school to see it. Politicians snapped photos from their office windows and tweeted about it. The FAA reportedly broke its own rules to allow the shuttle to fly so low over so many government buildings.
Despite all the money and despite the fact that the shuttle program never lived up to expectations, people cheered for Discovery. Some cried. There is something magical about space travel, something that transcends recessions, political squabbles, and even science itself.
In a few years, private companies will take over where the space shuttles left off, taxiing astronauts to the International Space Station and conducting experiments in Earth orbit for businesses, universities, and the government. For a mere $200,000, they’ll even take you into space (rumor has it that the price will drop significantly as space travel becomes more common).
A new space race is beginning, with China talking about building a Moon base to mine the Moon’s resources. The United States wants to visit an asteroid; asteroids could also be a source of valuable resources. One expert described the future as a game of “Solar System Monopoly” with various countries competing over economic interests in space.
No matter what the future brings, no matter what economic interests are involved, human beings will never lose their romantic love of space. Our true destiny is out there among the stars. The Space Shuttle Discovery brought us one step closer to getting there.
Videos courtesy of NASA Television.