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Strangely Charming: The Final Frontier

This past weekend, I had the great pleasure of witnessing the Space Shuttle Atlantis ascend to the heavens one final time before its permanent retirement. After 134 missions and thirty long and eventful years, NASA will retire its other two shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, by November. While the shuttle has been the defining NASA program over the last few decades, its retirement ushers in a bold new era of space exploration.

I watched the launch on the water just off the coast of Kennedy Space Center, and the experience was truly awe-inspiring. While I had seen launches on television before, seeing shuttle pixels really only captures a small portion of the experience. Though I was several miles away, the light of the rockets was blinding in a way Francis Scott Key could have never imagined. While this launch was during the day, those who have seen launches at night report the entire sky brightening as if a second sun were rising. Another surprise was that, given the distance to the shuttle, the thunderous sound of the engines took several seconds to reach my ears. As a result, the ignition itself was oddly tranquil, a silent fireball soaring into the sky, followed by a deafening boom and a fierce wind. The thought that there were people inside what was essentially a controlled explosion was mind-blowing, and the knowledge that humans could create something so wondrous was a testament to the ingenuity and tireless efforts of some of the world’s best scientists.

But in the grand scheme of things, the shuttle represents only the dawn of space exploration. As majestic as it is, the shuttle has rarely been farther than 500 miles from the Earth’s surface, and is usually about as far from the Earth as Los Angeles is from Stanford. A cornerstone of NASA’s mission is to “pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.” Flying in low-earth orbit, forty years after landing on the moon, no longer qualifies as exploring space. Corporations like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences and Blue Origin are rapidly proving to the world that putting people and equipment in orbit can now be done quickly and effectively with private funding. By allowing private companies to shoulder the burden of low earth orbit launches, NASA is afforded the ability of returning to its mission of advancing human understanding by exploring the rest of the cosmos, and learning more about our own planet.

It seems almost baffling that the federal government should spend 99.5 percent of its budget on this planet, and the slim remainder on the rest of the universe. Kidding aside, with the heydays of massive Apollo era budgets gone, the decision of how best to spend its limited resources is no easy task for NASA. Recognizing this, a commission of public and private leaders in the space community headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, and including Stanford alumna Sally Ride ’78, gathered last year to advise the President and Congress on how NASA should best proceed. While many options were debated, the main takeaway of the last year of talks is that NASA’s overall budget has been marginally increased to help allow for refocused efforts in science, and plans for future long-term space flight. Most excitingly, a manned mission to Mars now has real funding for the first time.

The past year has been extremely successful for NASA, whose spacecraft verified the existence of water on the Moon and advanced human understanding of climate change. Most recently, NASA satellites have been instrumental in monitoring and managing the gulf oil disaster, as well as the recent disasters in Haiti and Chile. As incredible as the Space Shuttle has been, exploring new worlds and protecting our own may be a far more effective use of limited resources.

I am incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to witness a shuttle launch, and I would highly recommend watching one of the two remaining launches to anyone who has never seen one. The Space Shuttle has been a powerful agent of discovery over the past few decades, and has played a key role in advancing human potential in the universe. I can only hope that the brave astronauts who gave their lives on Challenger and Columbia are looking down with pride at how we have recovered from tragedy, and are still advancing the light of knowledge into the future. One of the best ways to measure the impact of lives in our brief journeys on (or off) this world, is not in how much we accomplish, but in what doors we open for those after us to achieve. Under that metric, after two more missions, the Shuttle can finally rest proudly in the knowledge that the age of space exploration has only just begun.

The Stanford Daily is now available on the International Space Station. Contact Jack at in one or zero gravity.

  • Nelson Bridwell


    Obama’s 2007 campaign platform was to shut down the US NASA manned space program. His 2011 budget proposal will accomplish exactly that, bringing an abrupt end to the Constellation spacecraft development effort, a safer and much more capable replacement for the shuttle.

    And his budget, as announced on Feb 2nd, did not specifically target a manned landing on Mars or anywhere. The Mars orbit (look but don’t touch) and asteroid roundezvous were added 2 months later in response to outrage within NASA and in Congress.

    As a result of the Columbia accident, for the past 6 years NASA has been allowed to actually design and build the needed hardware to be able to explore space, rather than just talking about it. This important work must not be halted.

    In the words of another Jack, “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”