It is July 8, 2011 and as I write this it is a little before 9 AM Eastern Standard Time. In a few hours the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on it’s final mission, and what will be the last mission of the thirty year old space shuttle program.
As things stand, bad weather may delay the launch. There is currently a 70% chance of a delay. Weather is crucial as the conditions must be right not only at Cape Canaveral where the launch is to occur, but also at all of the possible landing sites around the globe. It is a logistically difficult arrangement.
Regardless of whether the launch occurs today or not, it will occur at some point and when Atlantis subsequently returns to earth the entire shuttle program will be over.
In some ways this is a sad moment in our history. Though the shuttle program was created with the express purpose of enabling the construction of the International Space Station, and though this task is now complete, to many of us this seems to signal the end of the era of United States space exploration.
With a poor economy and tightening government budgets the entire NASA program is being examined and some believe we can no longer afford the luxury of venturing into space with humans.
Personally, I hope they are outvoted and that human colonization of space continues, for a multitude of reasons, too lengthy for this article.
But in another way, I worry about the future of American dominance in science and technology. Every year our colleges and universities churn out thousands of scientists and engineers, but many and possibly most are of foreign origin and many of these return to countries such as China, India and Japan upon completing their studies. There they contribute to the rising power of their own nations in Science and technology. While in the meantime our own young people find less and less interest in these crucial fields preferring sports or entertainment as possible careers. Science is not “cool”.