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Transcendence Splashes Down

What was lost when Space Shuttle missions started to feel ho-hum.

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Illustration by Matthew Woodson  

It is objectively no small feat, slipping the surly bonds of Earth. But somehow, over its 30 years of existence, NASA’s Space Shuttle program has become roughly as thrilling as the Delta Shuttle. Still, there’s something sad about the end of the program, which will officially shut down after Endeavour’s 25th and final mission, on April 29, and one last there-and-back by Space Shuttle Atlantis in June. It’s not so much that the program’s increasingly prosaic missions—they have amounted, in recent years, to something like space carpooling—will be missed. The sadness instead comes from the petering out of space travel’s promised transcendence.

The commonplace marvels of modern technology probably have something to do with this awe deficit—a 400-mile vertical round-trip in a less-than-sleek 1992-model vehicle may not seem as miraculous as it did in a time before one could, if booked on the right airline, stream Parks and Recreation onto an iPad mid-flight. The Shuttle program’s geopolitical moment has passed, too. We’re no longer going to space to prove that our way of life is superior to an evil empire’s; instead, we’re going up there to do some repairs, drop off a magnetic spectrometer, and see the sights. And with deficits suddenly the Greatest Threat Our Nation Has Ever Faced, such errands now stand out as a sore thumb of a line item. The Space Shuttle program has cost nearly $200 billion over its lifetime; at a moment when we’re cutting holes in the social safety net to try to balance the books, Friday’s Shuttle launch will cost what NASA says is nearly half a billion dollars and another estimate puts at $1.2 billion. That the “economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment,” as former NASA life-sciences director Joan Vernikos has written, makes the accounting look a little more favorable, of course. But simply talking about it that way suggests just how un-wonderful space has become.

The Endeavour’s final mission will be commanded by Mark Kelly, the husband of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and for that reason, more than for its place in NASA history, it will ascend from a news brief to a bona fide national moment. Giffords, remarkably, has recovered enough from a January assassination attempt in which she was shot in the head that she is expected to be present for liftoff; President Obama and his family are scheduled to be there as well. It will be an occasion to celebrate Giffords’s inspiring recovery, to try to pull something uplifting from the horrible day in which she and other innocents were attacked, to be both moved and, in the postmodern mode, moved by how moved we are. Or it should be, anyway. It’s hard not to worry that, inevitably and unfortunately, on television and in Politico and slumped grumpily beneath WHERE’S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE? picket signs in the Kennedy Space Center parking lot, some will find a way to make this still-great thing—if you’re just joining, these people are going to space—small and familiar.

It might not be that the space program is insufficiently whiz-bang or beyond our means so much as that we’re now too busy, scared, or pissed off for it to mean anything to us. Which is a shame; baffled and broke-ish and hacked-off as the nation is, a little bit of that old humbling space-wonder and some of the shared purpose necessary to get people from here to there would go a long way right now. More than ever, the silent sanctity of space seems appealing—especially compared to being stuck down here, watching the skies and left without a ride.

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