(Photo courtesy of NASA/AP News)
A big "Welcome Home" to the intrepid astronauts on board the Space Shuttle Discovery today. I'm sure I wasn't the only one waiting and listening with my breath held, hoping that this would not be a repeat of the Columbia disaster. The delayed landing and the mid-mission repairs were certainly enough to make even a casual follower of the space program a little nervous.
Having said that, the Return to Flight mission made me stop and think a bit about the significance of manned space flight and this mission in particular. Certainly this mission had to take place in order for any discussion of the future of manned space flight to have any meaning. We had to know whether or not continued flight into orbit around the Earth was even feasible with our present technology and I think this mission established that future trips are possible.
For me, the idea of manned space flight takes on a significance that exceeds any practical usefulness, however. True, there are some types of scientific experimentation that requires a human instrument to conduct and certainly the International Space Station requires the support of the U.S. shuttle fleet for its construction and operation. But I believe there is an over-arching emotional and ideological justification that is at least as important as any scientific need.
The exploration of space represents the fundamental need for humanity to expand beyond any barrier, to peek behind any curtain. It's intrinsic in the fundamental need for mankind to search for our place and our purpose in the universe. Space exploration represents the cutting edge of human ingenuity and innovation, ideals which are part of the bedrock of our society and culture. Space exploration stands as grand testimony to what we can accomplish and how we can grow.
Further, these ideals speak to a great commonality among all of us living on this planet. From space, we are one very tiny community of like individuals. These ideals speak to something greater in us than nationalism and idealism; they symbolize a common thread that makes us one people. Not Americans, not Iraqis, no race, religion or political party but one human species that shares in this common expression of our own potential and our own search for meaning. Manned space exploration will always be dangerous; such is the nature of exploration throughout human history. But the reward sure to be shared by us all at the first imprint of a new footprint on the Moon or of the first picture of a space suit waving from the red dustiness of Mars will be well worth that risk.
I must admit I was a little misty-eyed in the car this morning listening to a NPR correspondent's coverage of Discovery's landing this morning, which is unusual for me, being the stoic, Midwestern fellow that I am. Maybe it was recognition of those fine ideals of exploration and discovery that moved me. Or perhaps it was the need for some good news in these troubled days; some story demonstrating the finer side of humanity often obscured by the clouds of war and social strife.
For whatever it was, I'm grateful.