Fare well, old friend Shuttle

This morning marked Space Shuttle Discovery’s final return to Earth, closing out the Space Shuttle program after three decades, a lot of wonder, and a few tragedies.

I grew up in a family that’s always been gung-ho about space exploration. My parents were teenagers during the 1969 moon landing — a time when aerospace was still strong in Los Angeles and the moon landers were being built locally — and have always had a passion for science fiction and fact alike. Growing up in this family in the 1980s, naturally I always loved the Space Shuttle.

Though the full promise of making shipping people and stuff into space cheap and everyday never quite came to pass, the Shuttle fleet has done a strong service to humanity over the years, helping us keep our fragile foothold on the edges of our planet and reminding us how far we have left to go — both in space stuff itself and in organizing ourselves for the long-term future of our world and our species.

It’s fitting that the final flight was Discovery; in 1988, it was Discovery that re-opened the Shuttle program, the first to fly after the Challenger disaster grounded the fleet for safety inspection and repairs, and again in 2005 after Columbia was lost.

My parents took my brother and I out to the deserts north of Los Angeles to see Discovery’s return landing back in 1988. Along with thousands of other people, we crowded the dry lake beds of Edwards Air Force Base, camping out all night to try to get a clear spot. Even at such distance, finally hearing the sonic booms and seeing that little shiny blob zip through the air — knowing it came from space, carrying human beings — was something I’ll never forget.

We’ve got a lot of problems here on earth — poverty, war, oppression, greed, indifference, disease, disasters, etc. But it’s always going to be important for us to be able to get the perspective that comes from stepping back and reminding ourselves that we’ve only got one life-sustaining planet. We’re going to have to learn to share…