I remember watching the first shuttle launch on the news. I remember my teacher crying when Challenger was lost. I remember when endeavor made a cross country tour on its way from California to Florida, the cars lined up at the side of Bergstrom AFB where the special shuttle carrying airplane made a stop. I remember meeting my first astronaut. I remember crying with M when we lost Columbia. I remember being deep in the East Texas woods looking for shuttle debris and the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I found a circuit board on top of the the leaves. Now, I will remember watching the last shuttle launch on a big TV, in a room full of fellow space workers, completely silent.
Everyone is trying to be optimistic, and it's true that we still have ISS until 2020 and there are other projects in the works, but all of this feels like an ending. It feels like the end of something that really captured everyone's imagination. It feels that way, I suppose, because we don't really have a plan for what's next. Not really. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space travel will be turned over to commercial ventures, and perhaps it will become commonplace, but I truly believe that human beings have a need to explore beyond that. We owe this to our children and to future generations. There is so little wonder in the world today, but this is something that still touches even the most accomplished among us.
We all knew this was coming and I am not arguing for a return to the shuttle program, but where are we going now? Where is our direction? There is no agreement on a path and no consensus on where human space flight will go from here. That is what makes people sad. That is what breaks my heart when L tells me "I want to be an astronaut." I tell him that he can because I want to believe that we will get back on track. I hope we do.
Thirty days after landing, thousands of workers will be let go. They will turn in their badges and try to figure out what to do next. As you think about what the shuttle program has meant to you, spare a thought for the people who loved it enough to make it their job. They will retire or move on to new careers, but if you've ever known anyone who has worked for the space program, you know that a piece of their heart will stay there, forever bound to the idea that we must explore and reach beyond our place here on earth.