I know, I know, you may not believe me, but it's out there. Much of it is faceless and aimless, a vague disapproval without direction or cause, crazies ranting about the end of the world or cold fusion or "Nobama" with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes it's righteous anger. And sometimes it hits close to home.
But right now I want to speak about something specific. I want to speak to all of those detractors out there who believe that NASA has run its course, who believe that the Shuttle program is no longer of interest to Americans, who believe that "launching rich people into space" is a waste of taxpayer money... this taxpayer is taking time off of work and spending hours in the car in order to get to Canaveral on Friday for the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
Little kids still want to be astronauts when they grow up. Perhaps it's not as prevalent a wish as in the 1960s or 1970s, but it's there. One and a half million people visit Kennedy Space Center every year. People still cry when they watch Shuttle launches (I, in fact, share a birthday with the Shuttles). Baby boomers still remember where they were when, on July 20th, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 first touched the surface of the Moon. Younger generations still remember the tragedy of the Challenger disaster in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 (I know I do). And Americans still need something to galvanize and rally us to greatness, something that embodies the very spirit of who we are.
The Shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station - all of these things still have the potential to evoke feelings of pride and awe. This specific brand of patriotism is not partisan or xenophobic or hateful. Remember this iconic image? Seeing the Earth as the pale blue sphere that it really is has made our patriotism into something more, something tempered and precious. With our pride in the technological achievement of our country comes the humbling understanding that we are all in this together.
I don't intend to simply spout platitudes; as a fan of Alan Watts I am well aware that we are as far into space as we'll ever be already. "So we're going to conquer space. You know we're in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let outside space come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We're as far out in space as we're ever going to get." But he ignores one very important fact - no matter how far out in space we are already here on Earth, we can never really know how far it is until we go further and look back. Perspective is everything.