The space shuttle Endeavour is set to launch in about an hour. This will be the penultimate mission of the shuttle fleet, a program of manned space flight that has spanned most of my life. As a geeked-out, aviation-obsessed kid, I clipped newspaper articles and pictures of the first shuttles being built, watched in captivated awe as the prototype, Enterprise, was released from it’s piggy-back position on top of a NASA 747 and floated towards the runway at Edwards. (Later, I built the scale model of those two craft, laboring for hours over the intricate plastic parts…ah youth!)
I watched all the early missions, knew the names of the first astronauts. And then space flight became routine, commercialized, and I grew older. The cynical part of my brain began to question, and still sometimes wonders, why we spend so much money on space flight. It’s hard not to wonder about who’s going to benefit from these tax-payer funded junkets to outer space.
But this morning I stumbled across the NASA site and read a summary of the mission. The shuttle is taking up the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02)in its cargo bay. The purpose of this device is to gaze out into the very deepest reaches of the universe and measure the delicacies of time and space—dark matter and anti-matter and radiation sources from far beyond our own galaxy. Somehow, this comforted me.
Reading the technical fact sheet about this billion dollar spectrometer helps me believe that there is nothing to be gained by this device except pure research, the expansion of human knowledge about our universe. The AMS-02 will not be the focus of the press reports-wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s husband is the shuttle commander and will garner any headlines-nor will it make sense to most of us lay readers (at least it didn’t make a lot of sense to this reader.) Our continued interest in the origins of the universe will bear no economic fruit, except the odd research grant.
But to me, this type of mission represents the poetry of science, the simple, albeit esoteric and technically complex, human mind expanding its reach toward questions which it can’t stop asking itself.
Who would have thought that a fact sheet from NASA could have provided so much optimism this early in the morning? Time to go brew a pot of coffee and watch the launch.