08 July 2011


LAST SHUTTLE LAUNCH. This morning at 11:29 A.M., the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center (see image above, click to enlarge) with its crew of four, embarking on the 135th and final mission in the space shuttle program. Noting the end of the shuttle era, mission commander Christopher Ferguson commented, "We're not ending the journey today, we're completing a chapter in a journey that will never end."

I hope Ferguson is right. As of now, there is no dedicated U.S. program in place for continuing and expanding a manned presence in space. The closest thing we have is the Orion spacecraft, which is years away from deployment and faces uncertain funding and uncertain mission definition, with the cancellation last year of the Constellation program. It would be a tragedy if we were to become so focused on our proximate needs that we lost sight of the grand vision of exploration and learning which has been the hallmark of NASA's many manned and unmanned space missions. We as a species have been explorers since we first left Africa to eventually populate the globe. Having essentially run out of new frontiers here on Earth, the next obvious great unknown is space ~ our moon, the planets of the solar system, and eventually interstellar exploration. One hopes the dream never dies.

Dennis Overbye shares similar thoughts in his essay As Shuttle Program Ends, Dreams of Space Linger, a reflection on the shuttle missions in general, and on their essential role in establishing one of humanity's most far-reaching scientific achievements, the Hubble Space Telescope. As for me, it is a day of awe mixed with disappointment. Being present for a shuttle launch has long been on my fantasy list, but for now the possibility no longer exists. One can only wait impatiently for the next phase of space exploration, whatever form it takes.

AERIAL AMERICA. The Smithsonian Channel is now offering full episodes of its Aerial America program, a series which features views of U.S. cityscapes and landscapes taken from aircraft at varying altitudes. Each episode focuses on a particular state, and so far the series has presented episodes on east and west coast states. The website is interactive, so you can provide input on which parts of your state you would like to see covered. I can't wait to see what they do with Arizona and Montana! (Image below courtesy of Raven Maps)

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