Friday, July 08, 2011

Godspeed STS-135

One of my earliest memories in life is being dragged in front of my family's television set in our home in Winnipeg in the early 1980s to watch the launch of a space shuttle. I don't know if it was STS-1 or some other early launch, but it must have made an impression on me, more likely for the reaction my parents had to the launch than my own.

My early years were spent at a time when spaceflight was, if not routine, a normal part of the world's group experience. Jet travel was taken for granted. Home computers were starting to make their appearance. High quality long distance telephones were a given. The Soviet Union was one of the world's superpowers.

Today, the final space shuttle mission launched. The shuttle, once the most technically advanced piece of technology ever to move under its own power, operates with a control computer substantially less powerful than that which controls my MP3 player. How things have changed.

Private companies are selling space tourism. I can fly to London for less than it would cost in fuel to drive to New York and back. Wireless high-speed Internet access is ubiquitous in North America. Free Internet video telephony is rapidly making long distance telephones obsolete. There is no assurance that any real superpower will exist in the future, and if so, who.

In a few years, I will be awakening my children and plopping them down in front of a computer to watch the live feed of an event that (to me) is of such a grandiose significance that it merits watching as a family. I have no idea what it will be.

Will it be the next man to walk on the Moon? The first to walk on Mars? The full power test of the first commercial fusion power reactor? The returns of a free election in China? The coronation of a King?

The horrible beauty of this question is that if there was a way to predict the answer, it would no longer be the answer.

Has the first person to live to 150 already been born? Will SETI find a voice in the darkness? Will the half-expected Armageddon of my childhood finally come more by accident than design?

If it is that last one, I think I will skip watching it live.