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Terry Newell

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A Nation in Need of Awe

Posted: 06/04/11 04:52 PM ET

On July 8th, space shuttle Atlantis will lift off from launch pad 39a, ending the 30 year space shuttle program. Launches have become so routine that the media barely take notice -- perhaps a few seconds of the rising rocket or crew maneuvers. More attention is given only when the unusual happens, such as the attendance of recovering Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

After 125 missions, perhaps this is to be expected. We can get used to almost anything, taking for granted what our energy, ingenuity, and dreams have granted us. The space program itself, now over half a century old, seems more the subject of budget battles and questions about relevance and priorities than it does about science.

Of course, space exploration costs money in a debt-ridden government. Of course, manned space flight has had its share of tragedies (the loss of Apollo and two shuttle crews). Of course, there are more serious problems on earth to be solved. Of course, the end of the shuttle program is not the end of NASA. But the lack of attention to recent flights and the silence from Americans about their end are striking. The Mercury astronauts lifting into space, the lunar landings of Apollo, and the photos of deep space from the Hubble telescope have somehow receded into history, no longer the subject of the awe with which we first beheld them. It's not the loss of the shuttle but the loss of that awe that should cause us to reflect.

The world is in need of awe. Beset by wars, debt, terrorism, climate change, religious fundamentalism, and poverty, humans are too focused on themselves and severely shell-shocked. Our lives need more of the miraculous. But the wonder that we need is not just the stuff of the conquest of space. It is the sense of our collective smallness in the universe, for some of our current troubles are also the products of our hubris. We thought, as the dominant species on the planet, that we could control far more than we should and can. Mother Nature and our complex societies are teaching us that we were wrong. In this sense, NASA's successes and tragic failures have reminded us not just of what we can accomplish but of how our accomplishments must be in harmony and not against forces greater than ourselves. NASA has lifted our hearts while at the same time anchoring us in humility. It has made us realize not only how amazing the universe is but that there is something more astounding than we are.

People who have lost their capacity to experience awe are a threat to themselves, to others and to the planet we occupy. A single picture from NASA's past -- of the blue-green earth floating in space as seen from the moon -- helped us realize the delicate nature of our life in the vast coldness above and fostered the environmental movement. It also helped us see that boundaries of geography, nation, ethnicity, race and religion are distinctions we make that have no meaning in the cosmos. We need more such moments.

In a recent interview for CBS Sunday Morning, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle crew member, including the crew that put Hubble into space, teared up as he talked about NASA's future after the shuttle. "In 1969 when humans walked on the moon, he said, "I want my granddaughters to see another human go to another heavenly body. So, yeah, you know, I get emotional about that, and I apologize."

He need not apologize. On the weekend Bolden spoke these words, more Americans went to see Hangover 2 than paid any attention to Endeavor's last flight. Collectively, they spent close to $100 million, setting a box office record. The film's world gross may well reach the cost of a shuttle mission ($450 million). The juxtaposition of these two events could not have been more symbolic. We all need comic relief of course, but we need cosmic wonder too.