My parents hadn't even met when the then Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite in October of 1957. The launch stunned and scared Americans, especially when it was revealed the Sputnik launch system was specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads. The launch sparked a Cold War Space Race, which was finally 'won' (in the broadest sense of the word) in July of 1969 when Apollo 11 landed safely on the Moon and Neil Armstrong uttered those now famous (though later learned to be scripted) words: "That's one small step for man... one giant leap for mankind." I had just turned 8 only a few days before (yeah, OK - do the math) and was so excited to watch those grainy images on our console TV. The Universe seemed to hold so much promise...
This coming Monday (barring any problems), the last major US space launch is scheduled to take the Space Shuttle Endeavour ([pictured, right) on its final mission. It is also the final Space Shuttle mission, ever. NASA is retiring the last Shuttle in the fleet after this mission, with no immediate plans for space exploration in the foreseeable future. This saddens me more than you can imagine.
As a fan of Science Fiction for almost as long as I can remember, the end of manned US space exploration leaves me cold. As our own planet's resources dwindle along with the Polar caps, it seems to me more important than ever to push exploration outside our own solar system in search of a planet that could sustain human life. As wrong as some novels and movies have predicted the 21st Century, others have predicted an even more dire 22nd and 23rd Centuries. And it's not that I expect to be around to see any of those potentially dreadful futures, or that I'll have any direct descendants who will, either. But as someone who considers himself a true Secular Humanist, I worry that Humanity itself is in danger of extinction, unless we find somewhere else to go.
Maybe I watched too many Gene Roddenberry shows as a kid. Or maybe I actually believe that someday, we can all agree that the preservation of the Human Race should outweigh the differences we may perceive about one another. I've always been a firm believer that Art and Science are what mark us as superior beings. I just hope we get the chance to prove that. Or maybe I'm just a crazy Pollyanna who thinks we actually deserve to survive as a race. Seeing what we've done to our own planet, I also worry about what we might do to others. Or maybe, just maybe, we'll have learned from our mistakes by then.