Space travel has long represented discovery, uncertainty, and limitless frontier. “To Infinity…and beyond!” yelled Buzz Lightyear as he blasted off the shelves and into our childhood memories in Toy Story. Our parents were young when Buzz Aldrin, Lightyear’s namesake, pioneered the American Space program. Now it appears government-funded space travel has inspired its last generation of young minds: this summer will mark the program’s end.
Each launch often has two or three attempts before it goes off right; the most recent launch of the shuttle Endeavor was no exception. I rode the Amtrak to Florida in late April only to be disappointed by mechanical failure. I returned this week to see Endeavor off on its last flight. Watching the ship take off from a little island in Indian River, I could not help but think of the shuttle as something like a college student.
With the unprecedented challenges facing them firmly in mind, college students approach their graduation—their own ‘blast-off’—with a degree of uncertainty. Any number of things can go wrong, but we have a good crew (mom and dad) and are excited to embark on our journeys of exploration and self-discovery. We will forge our own frontiers, and develop sustainable solutions for whatever confronts us. We might not get it right the first time—and probably won’t—but we have the skills we need to endeavor, so to speak.
At risk of overextending the spaceship-as-college-student analogy, I’ll return to Toy Story and ask: what is Buzz Lightyear really saying to us? “To infinity…and beyond!” The phrase seems silly: What is beyond infinity, anyway? Maybe nothing, but the wisdom I hear from Buzz is that we cannot possibly know until we get there. To me, striving to reach beyond infinity entails action. If you have an idea, don’t just write it down–figure out what you need to do to get it done. The problems we face are new, and old solutions may not work; it is up to us to come up with new ones.
In an effort to fix one of the problems—our government’s financial hemorrhage —the funding for NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle program has been slashed. For the moment, it seems that space is just beyond infinity for us. However, those of us who want to can still pursue the dream of space travel. Privately-funded organizations like SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are vying to pick up where NASA left, and they are hiring now. They’ll need astronauts, technicians, and venture capital.
That’s where we come in. If we so choose, our generation can fund space science and our own personal travel. Currently, space tourism is a small industry limited to the super rich, as flights start at $200,000 per person on Virgin Galactic. As technology gets more efficient, costs will decrease and, eventually, space travel might be affordable for the middle class as well.
Having spent an immensely enjoyable night camping on an island with local Floridians before waking up early to watch Endeavor’s final flight, I will be sad to see the program end. I encourage anyone who has never seen a shuttle launch to travel down to Titusville, Florida—an hour east of Orlando—with your parents or friends this July to watch Atlantis take off. You may never get another chance.
To me, the end of the program does not mean the end of space exploration. For our generation, it represents an end to the old, expensive way of doing things, and the beginning of unprecedented opportunity to travel cheaply, safely, and efficiently in the future. The study of space now rests solely on our shoulders, and I see it as a bench-post of our ability to overcome the considerable challenges ahead. If we can get back into space, what can’t we do?
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