Transcendence Splashes Down

It is objectively no small feat, slipping the surly bonds of Earth. But somehow, over its 30 years of existence, NASA’s Space Shuttle program has become roughly as thrilling as the Delta Shuttle. Still, there’s something sad about the end of the program, which will officially shut down after Endeavour’s 25th and final mission, on April 29, and one last there-and-back by Space Shuttle Atlantis in June. It’s not so much that the program’s increasingly prosaic missions—they have amounted, in recent years, to something like space carpooling—will be missed. The sadness instead comes from the petering out of space travel’s promised transcendence.

The commonplace marvels of modern technology probably have something to do with this awe deficit—a 400-mile vertical round-trip in a less-than-sleek 1992-model vehicle may not seem as miraculous as it did in a time before one could, if booked on the right airline, stream Parks and Recreation onto an iPad mid-flight. The Shuttle program’s geopolitical moment has passed, too. We’re no longer going to space to prove that our way of life is superior to an evil empire’s; instead, we’re going up there to do some repairs, drop off a magnetic spectrometer, and see the sights. And with deficits suddenly the Greatest Threat Our Nation Has Ever Faced, such errands now stand out as a sore thumb of a line item. The Space Shuttle program has cost nearly $200 billion over its lifetime; at a moment when we’re cutting holes in the social safety net to try to balance the books, Friday’s Shuttle launch will cost what NASA says is nearly half a billion dollars and another estimate puts at $1.2 billion. That the “economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment,” as former NASA life-sciences director Joan Vernikos has written, makes the accounting look a little more favorable, of course. But simply talking about it that way suggests just how un-wonderful space has become.

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