It will be the final mission of the shuttle program, which began in 1981 with STS-1 (STS stands for “space transportation system”) and now ends with STS 135.
Shuttle flights — a total of 134 up until Friday’s launch — can count many successes over the last three decades: The deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter and Magellan spacecraft to Venus have given us new insights about our solar system and the universe beyond. Hundreds of scientific experiments have been conducted in orbit. And shuttle missions have been instrumental in the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station, which could nurture continued global collaboration in the fields of science and space exploration.
Of course, there also have been tragedies: the 1986 loss of the Challenger and its crew of seven 73 seconds after liftoff. And the break up of Columbia over east Texas in 2003 that killed seven astronauts.
As the last shuttle mission looms, I’ve been wondering how we as Catholics should be thinking about space exploration and its future.
Were the shuttle missions worth it? Should we as a nation continue to invest in a space program given the other challenges we face as a planet — problems like poverty and environmental degradation that would seem to need more immediate attention?
On the other hand, I recall the recent satellite linkup between Pope Benedict XVI and 12 astronauts aboard the ISS. One astronaut noted that the science and technology designed and used for the space station could lead to adaptations on earth that would lesson conflict — sometimes violent conflict between nations — over energy resources.
I would also add that exploring the universe can help us better understand God’s creation and our place in it — and wouldn’t God want us to do that?
On the eve of this last Space Shuttle flight, I’m curious what other Catholics think about these questions. What are your thoughts?