Shuttle Mission STS-135 is officially over. Space Shuttle Atlantis is home. She and her sisters are now grounded. We are done.
I've read a few counter-arguments to that position, but they all fall short of convincing me this is not the end. NASA isn't dead, they say . . . they've just shut down what is arguably the most successful manned space program in history. Humans will still travel to Mars and beyond . . . in 20 or 30 years. Cargo will still be lifted into orbit . . . by private corporations and other nations. Fine. That's not the point.
NASA TV is now broadcasting landing replays and will most likely have extensive shuttle history coverage for today and the next few days, interspersed with astronaut and flight crew interviews and press conferences, if you're interested or if you want to catch up on anything you may have missed. That's not the point, either, although it is fascinating stuff.
The point is this: for the first time in my life I feel like a member of a dying civilization. For the first time I feel as if the American people have actually chosen to melt down the keys to the universe that they spent half a century collecting. As if we decided that it was just too much trouble to keep going. As if we have chosen the lesser path.
I'm not going to even dwell on the obvious practical shortcomings on this decision. NASA no longer has room to employ over 8,000 people, and they're going to get their pink slips and hearty handshakes and go off to do . . . something productive, I hope. These are 8,000 of the most dedicated, highly trained, talented individuals our society has produced. Letting them go is wrong. It's worse than wrong, it's cutting our entire society's nose off to spite its face. Those people are some of the best trained in the physical sciences in the world. If nothing else they need to be sent into other jobs where they can employ their engineering, design, organization, and technical acumen.
I'm not even going to mention the five hundred or so individuals who have bled, sweat, and died to earn the title astronaut. I don't think I have to. When I was in grade school, if you didn't want to grow up to be an astronaut at some point, there was something wrong with you. Granted, the reality was quite different--astronauts were chosen to be human Guinea pigs, TV celebrities and PR tokens as much as crew*--but we were kids, and we all dreamed of going into space on holiday some day, even as we knew that other future-dreams like teleportation and flying cars were just silly.
We have chosen ignorance over knowledge, consumption over production, banality over creativity. Worse, we have chosen to integrate the lesson that anything we aren't already doing cannot be done, when even a cursory examination of our history tells us exactly the opposite.
I don't know what happens after this. I have a vague sense that someone else will pick up where we chose to leave off, and I wish whomever does so all the luck in the universe. And why not? It will be theirs for the taking.
*Susan Faludi documents these aspects of the Gemini and Apollo programs in her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.