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"All Good Things..."

Today was bittersweet. It was the last launch of a US Space Shuttle, the opening scene of the last act of one of the greatest chapters of human exploration and American innovation. I remember the first launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981. I have a poster of the liftoff. It was two weeks after President Reagan survived an assassination attempt, four months after the Iranian hostages were released, and the United States was in the middle of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Times were hard. In the midst of this stress, the successful launch of the first space shuttle was a much needed encouragement for our nation. It literally lifted our spirits, and restored national pride.

The above probably seems overly sentimental and nostalgic to some, especially those too young to remember it. But it is true. I was just becoming aware of the world outside of home and school, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. There are a number of correlations to today’s headlines, and instead of finding new inspiration, we are closing some down.

It is unfortunately true that the government can no longer afford to spend the money to develop a new space program. That is a critical consequence of the severity of the national debt. As glad as I am to see we are cutting spending in at least one area, I am sad that our space program fading into the sunset for the time being.

Sure, our nuclear missiles have more concentrated power than the shuttle, but it is something to see that much power under control, being channeled and directed by simple keystrokes, small movements of a joystick. To go from 0 to 15,000 miles per hour in just a few minutes is an incredible sight to behold. The complexity and interconnectedness of its systems are a marvel.

I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that I do not grade on effort, I grade on competence. I tell them that they have chosen a highly technical field and hard work is expected and required, and therefore not a consideration in their grades. “The engineers on the space shuttle,” I say to them, “work very hard. They also have to get it very right.” How much longer will that example resonate with students? With what will I replace it?

Every time I watch a launch and marvel at the truly awesome display of human achievement, I can’t help each time but think of the following passage from Mark 13:
“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’
 ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”

For its day, Herod’s Temple was truly a wonder and the disciples were right to marvel at it. And while His comments reflect on the temporal nature of all of our accomplishments, even Jesus agrees that it was great. That is something—that God acknowledges the magnitude of human achievement. I suspect in some ways it brings Him joy that His children accomplish ambitious tasks, yet when it is done for our glory and tries to elevate ourselves above Him, it becomes sin and must be opposed.

Nonetheless, I do find cause to celebrate in the shuttle program, and cause to be sad at its passing. It is worth marveling at, and in humility thanking God for the ability to do such things.

Thus, I salute all who have made this program possible, from the astronauts from many nations who rode them to the cleanup crews that kept the vast installations clean and safe. Thank you for inspiring this nation and the world for 30 years. Thank you to the families that shared their husbands, wives and parents who flew outward and upward. Thank you to the fourteen families who did not receive their loved ones back. To the final crews of Challenger and Columbia, thank you for your sacrifice.

You are still missed.


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