Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Flight – a Turning Point?

The last flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery is due to take off today, with one, or at most two, more flights planned of other vehicles.

We are accustomed to think in terms of looking forward with wonder at what the future will hold. But the case of the space shuttle, the supersonic passenger aircraft Concorde and lunar landings, will have my children and grandchildren looking back in wonder.  Realizing that I lived in a time when business people regularly crossed the Atlantic faster than the speed of sound and when astronauts landed on the moon and traveled into space and back in a reusable vehicle.  The drivers for these achievements are a mix of national pride, competitiveness and co-operation.

It is a human instinct to want to build on and supersede the achievements of previous generations. But one of the challenges to sustainability is that we tend to do that in the most visible and measurable ways – further, faster, bigger, more often, more ambitious. Often this striving to supersede, requires more resources. Sometimes, as within the case of Concord, the dream simply wasn’t sustainable.

Just like the next person, distant exploration and speed excite me. My heart will certainly speed up and I will feel a pride in American ingenuity when I see Space Shuttle Discovery take off.  Nevertheless, while I will be sad to see the end of the program, I hope that it could mark a turning point in the way we judge progress.

Instead of further, bigger, stronger and faster, I hope we can come together to celebrate success from achieving objectives that are just as technologically demanding, but measured by their contribution to sustainability rather than by speed, distance and size of the smoke plume!

post script 16 November 2010 – ironically, the space shuttle Discovery has not yet lifted off due to a series of technical issues that are still being addressed


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