Saying Thank You And Goodbye to the Space Shuttle

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The following post represents my views, and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the Education and Outreach Committee of the NASA Advisory Council, of which I’m proud to be a member.

“The Future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.” -President Ronald Reagan

On Friday, we say goodbye to a technological achievement beyond compare, a machine so far ahead of it’s time when it first arrived, and a conveyance that to this day, inspires awe in all who see it. We say goodbye to 30 years of solid work, of countless successes, and two dark and tragic failures. We draw the final curtain on a conveyance that carried more than 355 people from 16 nations from our planet into the great unknown, and all but twice returned them safely back home.

On Friday, we say goodbye to the Space Shuttle, as Atlantis makes its final voyage, one final liftoff into orbit around our small, blue planet.

I, for one, will miss the program terribly, but I also believe that the time is right to say goodbye.

Without goodbye, new adventures can’t begin. Without goodbye, we can’t grow, as a people, as a collective consciousness, as a civilization. Without goodbye, there’s no chance to ever say hello to what might be next.

In 30 years, the Space Shuttle has provided us with countless pieces of technology, the majority of which we take for granted every day of our lives. Invisible braces, for instance. Memory foam mattresses, and even water filters.

When Apollo was put to pasture, people thought the end of the space program was near. Same thing with Mercury, Gemini, and now, the Shuttle. The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. The economic effect of the end of the Shuttle program will in fact, be very real, but the economic effects of not looking towards the future would be much, much worse, not only for NASA and the thousands of proud men and women who work there, but for the United States as a whole.

To grow, exploration has to continue. It can’t ever stop. It can never rest on its laurels and be content. Exploration must always be looking for the next thing – And sometimes, to do that, you have to say goodbye to an old friend. Does that knowledge make the end of the Space Shuttle program any less sad? It does not. I’ll miss them. Wherever I was in the world, if there was a launch, I was in front of a TV, until that amazing 5th of April of 2010, when I was there, live.

Here’s the thing: We BUILT this! We did this! We built something amazing, something that could leave our planet, go into orbit, and return! We did this! And I have no doubt we’ll do it again for the next generation, and the generation after that. And we’ll go further than just into orbit. We’ll go to Mars. We’ll go to Saturn. We’ll establish colonies on the moon, and beyond. Right now, NASA’s Voyager, launched in 1977, is currently entering the Heliosphere, or the edge of Interstellar space. It’s leaving “our” galaxy, and seeing what else is out there. We sent that craft up when I was five years old, and it’s still going strong! That’s some Star Trek stuff right there!

And as we continue to discover, there will no doubt be further losses, as well. Loss goes with discovery, and you can’t have one without the other, no matter how careful you are. I recall President Reagan, in his speech the night of the Challenge disaster, when he said: “We will never forget them, not the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

We will continue to soar, because that’s what we do. We are a race of beings who have never been satisfied knowing “just what we know.” We need to learn more. It’s who we are. The Space Shuttle helped us do that, and now it’s time for new machines, and new brave men and women to lead the charge into the next era of space exploration.

Thank you to every single person who worked on the Space Shuttle program. The contributions you made to science, medicine, technology, and our common quest for knowledge can’t be spoken of highly enough. You’ve laid the groundwork for the next level.

I, for one, am incredibly excited to see where that next level takes us.

May I be so honored to say one final time, “Godspeed, Atlantis.” Wherever you are on Friday, take a few minutes out of your day at 11:26am EST, and turn on your TV, or look up to the skies, and wish Atlantis Godspeed as it races towards the heavens one final time. And if you are so moved to, say a small “thank you,” as well.

Peter Shankman7/6/11

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