For most of us, here at NASA's 50th annivesary, space exploration is simply part of a modern technological age. Shuttles take off; rockets deliver probes; the Hubble telescope transmits eye-popping images and then flutters into silence.
A visit to Kennedy Space Center, where I've been late this week, is reminder that exploration is so much more.
For 11-year-old Gavin Bender of Pennsylvania, his KSC tour was a celebration of bravery; "being an astronaut is about more than just being famous.'' For his dad, David, the films and exhibits were a reminder of how much can be accomplished through commitment and perseverence. For retiree Carol Hall of North Carolina, standing at L39 in the rare sight of two shuttles on the launch pad, it was a wistful reminder of her own unfulfilled dreams of space travel. And for 12-year-old Roche Pretorius of Maitland on his 5th or 6th visit, who wants to become an astronaut, it was perhaps a glimpse of the future.
Exhibits at KSC are compact, sometimes seeming even small -- until you really look at them. Then you may find yourself immersed in the story of how 400,000 people took America to the moon, how robots prepare the way for manned space flights, how an astronaut feels at blast-off.
The newest exhibit centers on images from the troubled Hubble Telescope. Nearly all of us have seen the images, read the stories. But it wasn't until I studied them in this exhibit that I was struck with the wonder of what that time-traveler really does. Sitting at 350 miles above the earth, the Hubble reaches back millenia -- up to 10 billion years -- and brings home to us images of colliding stars, swirling nebulae and billions of galaxies that are no more. It has confirmed black holes and billions of stars and even more galaxies...and left us with questions and hopes, ambitions and perhaps, even fears. It reminds us that out of chaos eventually comes order -- a comfort in these uncertain times.
Frank Cippolina, Hubble project manager, attended the exhibit's opening, and we had a chance to chat. Because of Hubble, he said, "We've discovered who we are in this tiny planet...how significant, or insignificant, are we to exist in this huge galaxy.''
It's a useful perspective at a time when our country, it often seems, is mired in self-absorbtion and greed and worry. And glorious, at least for me, to be inspired to travel so much farther.
What do you think about space exploration? Should we continue? Comment below.