What is next? That is the question as America's space shuttle program comes to an end.
It has been just over a century since Wilbur and Orville Wright's historic flights at Kitty Hawk, NC. Actually the flights occurred about four miles away and then the Wright brothers walked back to Kitty Hawk to send a telegram. The first flight lasted only 12 seconds. The final of four flights was piloted by Wilbur and was the longest. It lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet.
The advances in aviation since that December 17, 1903 event are too staggering to comprehend. My grandchildren arrived from Tokyo a week ago on a thirteen-hour flight that carried hundreds of people. My little brain cannot fathom how that is possible but that is nothing when seen in light of more dramatic scenarios.
On April12 , 1981 Columbia, the first of the United States space shuttles, blasted off headed for the International Space Station orbiting the earth at over 17,000 miles per hour about 200 miles above the earth's surface.
The era of the space shuttle ended last week when Atlantis landed at Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 AM on July 20, 42 years to the day after the first man walked on the surface of the moon. This mission closed a 30 year program that carried hundreds of people from 16 different countries into space with five space shuttles on a total of 135 missions.
Atlantis' final 13-day mission to the International Space Station was to stock the orbiting laboratory with supplies, food and equipment. The crew delivered 9,400 pounds of spare parts, equipment and other supplies. Just two months ago, the Endeavor made its final voyage to deliver and install a $2 billion particle physics experiment and some spare station parts.
Over the entire lifetime of the space shuttle program the cost has been close to $150 billion. The average cost per flight has been about $1.5 billion.
Two of the program's flights ended in tragedy killing 14 astronauts in the last 30 years. The Challenger disintegrated upon liftoff in January 1986. 17 years later, the Columbia broke up on re-entry to earth's atmosphere.
As the Atlantis landed last week the commander of this final space shuttle flight, Navy Capt. Christopher J. Ferguson said, "The shuttle is always going to be reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We're not ending the journey... we're completing a chapter in a journey that will never end."
"The space shuttle changed the way we view the world, the way we view the universe. America is not going to stop exploring," Ferguson stated further.
NASA is retiring its three remaining space shuttles after 30 years to concentrate on interplanetary travel. The goals include travel to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.
"What we are going to see in the next few years is a very broadening of the horizon," said Capt. Ferguson. "What we'll do is we'll turn over the reins of (transporting persons into space) to commercial partners."
Two commercial companies, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation, may begin cargo flights early next year. One of those companies said they can get astronauts to the space station within three years of getting NASA approval. Until then, Russia is the only option to ferry American astronauts into orbit.
"You can't do something else, you can't do something better, unless you go through change," said Robert D. Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center.
Now what, you say, does this have to do with the Church and my life as a Christian? Probably more than I can imagine but let me try to make some application.
Our history is important. We don't abandon our past but build upon it. The things that we learn from our experiences inform us as we prepare for the future and changes that are needed. God promises us "hope and a future."
When we are faithful to our calling as Christian disciples we will be presented with many exciting and sometimes frightening opportunities. Openness to the guidance of God's Spirit will enable us to do things differently recognizing the caution and the risk, the cost and the reward. And it is helpful if we understand that setbacks are not the same as failure.
[Taken with permission from Monday Morning in North Georgia, July 25, 2011. North Georgia Conference, United Methodist Church.]