NASA’s Discovery space shuttle took flight one last time on Tuesday, this time on its way to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. First launched on August 30, 1984, the Discovery shuttle’s final ride reminds all of us how important the frontier spirit is to our people. Now, as we watch it fly into retirement, it is important to keep our national passion for a space program alive.
The Discovery was America’s longest-serving orbiter, having “completed 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited the Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles.”
Tens of thousands stopped to watch the shuttle, piggybacking off a modified Boeing 747, as Discovery flew low over the U.S. Capitol and proceeded to make three passes over the Mall. Reactions varied from silent amazement to outbursts of tears; many got out of their cars and ran outside of buildings in order to get better views of the shuttle.
What was most striking, however, is not the shuttle itself, but how we identify something like this with our children, with “America.” Almost every report about the Discovery shuttle was supplemented with some small anecdote about a young boy or girl who had the privilege of seeing its last flight.
One could read about 8-year-old Alex Corica, who welcomed the shuttle with an orange astronaut uniform and helmet. Or about 12 year-old Riley Jacobsen, who eloquently described seeing the shuttle as “pretty freaking amazing.” And then there was 5-year-old Desmond Damico-Lassman, who “wore an astronaut costume to the flyover in hopes the pilots of the aircraft would bring him aboard.”
These are only a few cases, but we can see how powerful the idea of something like “outer space” is for Americans young and old. Now, with the U.S. officially dependent upon Russian transportation to and from the International Space Station until 2017, the retirement of shuttle Discovery should strike us as a tad bittersweet. Astrophysicist Niel deGrasse Tyson warns against the “deep cuts” proposed in the 2013 budget proposed by President Obama. For Tyson, space offers that unique sense of adventure that spurs on great minds to make advancements in the fields of science and technology.
Indeed, we Americans came upon this “new” continent and pushed westward: Our national character was shaped by this courageous foray – this adventure – into the unknown. As a result, the journey into outer space has a special, even personal meaning to us.
Granted, a lot has changed since 1984. But on Tuesday, as we watched the Discovery space shuttle take flight one last time, America was reminded once again of the pioneer spirit that rests deeply within the heart of our people.