I always get excited when a new NASA mission comes around, and 3:51 PM EDT tomorrow is the scheduled launch of STS-114, Space Shuttle Discovery. It is of course a milestone for NASA to be launching its first shuttle since Columbia, but I find each launch to be pretty amazing in its own right. As a geek, I can appreciate (read: drool over) the incredible technological complexities that go into making it happen. As a science fiction fan and observer of human evolution, I can appreciate the role that space exploration plays in inspiring and pushing our strange existence on this puny little planet to new heights. I have fond memories of a family vacation when we toured the Kennedy Space Center, and just the physical enormity of the undertaking left an impression, not to mention the impacts of its successes and failures.
I also remember a cool summer night long ago in Cincinnati, walking with my father in the park behind our house, and noticing the lights on in the Observatory Center located there. We tentatively walked up to the door and poked our heads in and looked around, and saw a bunch of scientists gathered around a huge telescope. Someone said, "Hey, we're watching the Shuttle, want to see it?" I almost couldn't believe my eyes as we watched the ship fly overhead through the lens; it looked like a small white car flying through the night. The imagery was impressive, but the thoughts it stirred up in my head were indescribable.
Moments like that one and others that followed have made space flight personally worth it to me, but I'm fully aware that many find this use of taxpayer dollars to be troublesome, to say the least, and ask why we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars sampling dust on Mars when we can't create a just and peaceful existence on our own world. I don't have a good answer for that, or at least not a simple one, but I do know that as long as there are absurdly misplaced priorities governing how we use our resources on planet Earth, I'm glad that reaching out into space is one of them. The perspective we gain on our own existence is significant, and what it says about our capabilities and dreams as a species, for better or worse, is amazing.