To infinity and beyond: Thanks, NASA, for exploration efforts

Star light, star bright.

First star I see tonight…

It occurs to me that I don’t actually see many stars these days. I usually keep my head low when I’m walking at night, pondering some ethereal problem of numbers; I lost that child-like wonder that would wake me up in the middle of the night to go to my windows, pull open the curtains and see if I could trace out Cassiopeia in the stars.

And, to be frank, it makes me a little ashamed. Here I am, my brain stuffed so full of trivia that I didn’t even need Wikipedia to remember that Alpha Centauri is a binary star system. And yet, when I heard a few weeks ago that the NASA shuttle program was ending, I was shocked. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Not that I hadn’t seen the little headlines tucked away on news sites warning that this was coming. I just had not been paying enough attention until these last few days.

Right now, as I write this, somewhere above Newfoundland, the space shuttle Atlantis is flying, running a check on its heat shield as it prepares to make its last descent to Earth. On Wednesday, you, dear reader, can actually watch it progress by visiting spaceflight.nasa.gov. After landing, it’ll be sent to a museum, to hopefully inspire more children to look up at the stars in wonder. I hear phrases like “The end of an era” bandied about, blaming the halt of the space program on waning public interest. I don’t believe it. It’s not as if NASA is shutting down, or the international space station dismantled to join the rest of the debris orbiting Earth.

In many ways, it is an important, even necessary step. NASA couldn’t always be America’s sole gateway to the stars; at some point, the corporations and companies would see the possibilities of space — the faster travel, the tourism, and what-have-you — and would want to go there themselves. There are almost certainly better ways of flinging people and objects into space than shuttles. The quest for finding cheaper, faster, more cost-effective vehicles to space has already become the thing of national competitions.

NASA had to develop revolutionary ideas just to make the trip into space. What sort of great advances lie in store when companies try to figure out how to make the trip into space profitable?

But the talk isn’t just talk. Something has ended.

Space is no longer the final frontier.

If I see an article on a space flight or news from the Mars rover pushed down 10, 15 pages into the newspaper, I am at the same time appalled and elated. I don’t think we in the media ever spend quite as much time on science as we should, but we have done something truly astounding: We have turned the thought of space-travel from a dream into a reality, an everyday reality, a scrap one might talk about over breakfast with the same tone used to describe a baseball game that happened a week ago.

And I’m glad.

I’m very glad.

The first brave pioneers stepped off this planet and into the unknown, showing us that it was not merely a dream of high-minded writers. They started down the path, but it’s taken a bevy of others — pilots, scientists, technicians, and more than a few hopeless dreamers — to widen the path, to show us that journeying into space is not just possible, but feasible. We have come to expect the occasional picture from the Hubble telescope to grace the newspaper stands. We expect to hear a bit of news from the Mars rover every now and again.

Thanks to all their hard work, space is a part of our culture now.

So to the crew of the Atlantis — Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Rex Walheim, and Sandy Magnus:

Godspeed and a safe trip home.

And thank you for paving the road to the stars.

Joseph is a graduate student.