I love space. I love learning about other planets, fantasizing about being weightless, and watching Apollo 13. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I actually didn’t hate that my older brother made me watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with him when we were kids. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama. Twice. When Sally Ride gave convocation at my college last year, I grinned for the whole hour of her talk. Just like the eight year olds up front. When I got back to lab after her talk, my labmate and I confessed that we really wanted to be astronauts, and grad school was a small part of our secret stellar plans.
So you can imagine that I was happy to see space shuttle (STS-117 Atlantis) take off on Friday for another mission to the International Space Station. The purpose of this mission is to install another truss segment and to replace a solar array on the station—essentially what occurred on the last mission, only on the starboard side this time. The truss segment is one of many that will form the backbone of the Space Station. Atlantis docked with the station earlier this afternoon, despite concerns about a tear in the heat shield. Installation of the truss segment and solar array will take place in three space walks, or extra-vehicular activities, as they’re known in space lingo.
Another part of this mission is to swap crew members Sunita Williams and Clayton Anderson. Williams will return to Earth after running the Boston Marathon in just under four and a half hours…in space. Additionally, she will have broken the female record for longest single spaceflight for her 118 days in orbit. Clearly, a go-getter. But remarkable as well, so I hope she comes home safely.
Eventually, the space station will serve as a research station and a rest-stop between Earth and other destinations. Obviously I’m all for space exploration. However, I’m bothered when legislators and NASA administrators claim furthering scientific knowledge as a principal reason for the existence of the station. Indeed, data gathered on the station about the planets and rest of the universe is extremely valuable, and those experiments should continue. But often, the science that is played up includes fantastic claims like manufacturing disease-fighting compounds in zero-gravity environments. It’s theoretically possible, but it’s not practical. Even if a compound panned out, that would mean mass-production of a drug in space. That’s definitely not practical right now.
Space exploration is a worthy purpose of the space program. I know it’s cliché, but where would we be without explorers like Columbus and Magellan? Similar challenges faced them hundreds of years ago. Kings forked over lots of money and supplies for many explorers. Many explorers died because travel across the Atlantic Ocean was tough. Yet, exploration yielded our country, so in a way, we have to be grateful for the daring journeymen (yes, there are the bad parts of exploration as well—as of now, there are no Martians, so we won’t face some issues again). I don’t think we should have to present science experiments as a reason to bolster the validity of NASA. Space is a cool enough treehouse on its own.