Earlier today, the space shuttle Discovery made its way from Florida, flying up the East Coast and over the monuments of Washington, D.C. on its way to its final home at the Smithsonian Institution. The shuttle, always a breathtaking sight, was no less so atop the modified 747 that took it to Washington. The magnificent craft drew thousands of onlookers on its last journey.
As well it should. The space shuttle represents the pinnacle of aeronautical achievement that started on a beach in Kitty Hawk. in 1903.
It’s easy to take for granted the incredible technological achievements of the past half century. But we shouldn’t. If you stop to think about the things humankind has accomplished, it’s truly staggering.
The instinct to explore, to wonder, is a natural part of the human condition. Consider how many thousands of years men and women gazed at the night sky and wondered what’s up there. From the earliest humans to today, it’s likely that everyone ever born has wanted to know more about the mysteries of space.
Only in the last half-century or so have we been able to begin to find out. From the Russian Sputnik to the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, to the International Space Station, we’ve figured out how to escape the constraints of Earth’s gravity and actually see what really exists at the edge of our imagination.
And then we built the space shuttles. Possibly the most complicated machines the world has ever known, the shuttles had no equal. We sent them into space 135 times, trusting their ability to keep up to 7 people alive. We’ve brought them safely back to earth.
There were some tragedies along the way, yes. We will always remember the brave astronauts who lost their lives aboard Challenger and Columbia. But the fact that only two shuttle missions out of 135 resulted in loss of life shows a remarkable safety record.
In part though, that’s why the shuttle sometimes seemed routine. We grew accustomed to successfully sending people into space and returning them safely to earth. When everything works the way it’s designed to, it’s easy to forget just how many things could have gone wrong, and how many times they didn’t. So many complex things had to happen either simultaneously or in sequence to keep 7 people alive, get them into space and return them safely home.
Think about how the great minds of history would have viewed the shuttle’s achievements. What would Aristotle, Plato, Leonardo, Einstein had to say about our exploration of the heavens? Imagine how the Wright brothers would see the accomplishments made possible by the shuttle.
How can we see it as anything less?