The Space Shuttle is on its last mission, that is if delivering cargo can be properly labeled a “mission.” These flying tractor-trailers came to dominate America’s stagnant space program for almost 30 years, turning away from an exciting and promising beginning that saw America put men on the moon just one decade after its inception. That whole “go where no man has gone before” mentality was cancelled almost as quickly as the original Star Trek TV series that gave us that motto.

All the talk about colonies on the Moon, Mars and beyond, orbiting space stations and launch platforms, mining asteroids, building hotels in space and exploring the entire solar system and the galaxy beyond gave way to the mundane business of turning the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) into a truck dispatching office. So much for exploring the stars, or even space tourism. Instead, it was time to explore cargo manifests for local deliveries.

The Space Shuttles are now beat up old trucks with millions of miles on their odometers and are being put into mothballs after this current delivery run. Many within NASA itself won’t be sorry to see the end of the Space Shuttle Era, which was ushered in after much hot debate within the agency and the greater Federal government over the future of America’s space program. The Explore the Stars faction lost out to the Big Truck Faction and since 1982 no manned exploratory missions were undertaken. The only “ships” sent outside our own planetary orbit were unmanned photo observation drones and exploratory robots that landed on Mars and often broke down with no one around to repair them.

The most exciting thing the cargo trucks delivered into Earth orbit was the Hubbel Space Telescope in 1990. This magnificent camera has been providing us with a steady stream of tantalizingly beautiful pictures of what mankind was missing by choosing not to explore the universe. Hubbel and other similar devices have also identified a number of potentially habitable planets out there in the cosmos, and the itch to enter the Galaxy returned to mankind stronger than ever.

Our initial exciting and motivating steps into space yielded a phenomenal amount of new technology that is still radically transforming our planet 40 years after Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for all of us by being the first man to set foot on the moon. The high tech world we now inhabit is the direct result of the space program, from coaxial cable to silicon chips to the miniaturization that makes all our techno gadgets a reality.

As far as the Big Picture goes, our trips to the Moon were mere drop-ins on a close neighbor, and no human has ever left our planetary system, never mind the Solar System and beyond into the hundreds of billions of stars in our Galaxy (and there’s millions of other galaxies too!). The problems to be solved to get there are immense, but not so immense as they were when we started in the late 1950s, a time when the majority of human beings had never spoken on a telephone or ridden in a motor vehicle, and few thought we could land on the Moon. We learned fast.

Because we made that initial exploration, we know a lot more about what we are up against, and what we will need to do, and to invent, to make it happen. Who knows what technology will be developed for this mission, and what wonderful civilian applications it will provide to all of us? Perhaps mining an asteroid will bring us a new metal or other useful substance not found on earth. With President Obama recently announcing that America’s stated goal is now to land humans on Mars by the year 2030, perhaps an ice-covered asteroid could provide more water for the Red Planet, and help us transform its atmosphere so that we can breathe it.

A permanent outpost on Mars doesn’t seem so far-fetched now that we have visited the Moon. The line for volunteers to go even further will stretch for miles once we decide to build real spaceships for very long voyages. Sooner or later, mankind will visit the stars. There’s a little bit of Christopher Columbus in all of us, wondering what’s on the other side and how can we get there, and when enough of us wonder, someone will take up the challenge. Might as well be Americans, and it might as well be now. Why wait for someone else to do it? Say goodbye to the Space Trucks, and hello to Mars.

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