Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Space Shuttles?

spaceshuttleChildren all over the world are fascinated with travel. My nearly two year old son, Lil’ E, is mesmerized right now with cars and trains. One of his favorite things to do is sit near the road on a big stump with me and watch the cars go by and call them out: “red sports car” or “black SUV”. On a recent trip he took to the zoo during the week, I came home from work and asked him what he saw at the zoo. His very excited reply: “pick-up trucks.” The apple clearly didn’t fall far from the tree. As a child I was amazed with anything that moved, cars, trains, airplanes…you name it. As I got a little older I became enthralled with spaceships. Maybe it was from growing up with movies like Star Wars, but I was hooked like others my age who wanted to grow up to be astronauts.

This morning the space shuttle Atlantis launched for its final flight and that launch officially marks the end of an era. Since 1961, the United States has had a continuous presence in manned space exploration. Now with the final launch of Atlantis, other than sending astronauts up in Russian space crafts, manned space exploration by the United States will be put on hold. Some estimates are that it may be more than ten years before another manned space craft is launched by NASA.

Although Lil’ E is too small to watch the launch or really understand, I watched the final launch for my own nostalgia. It still brought a rush. As a kid in the early 80’s I remember crowding into the elementary school library with my entire school to watch the first shuttle launch into space. Classes were cancelled. I remember being allowed to stay up late one night so we could watch it as it orbited over New England. It looked like a shooting star streaking across the night sky. There was something magical about it. It was like a weird case of make-pretend mixed with reality.

So why am I writing about this here? If you mention space and astronauts to most little kids now, they’re more likely to think of Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story than a real astronaut. Then they’ll probably run around yelling “To infinity…and beyond!” which in itself is pretty awesome. A healthy sense of make-believe is important to a child’s development. Medical studies have shown you need a little imagination to understand complex bits of reality you encounter later in life. Things like ancient history or a molecule’s structure…or even outer space…are all real but you need a bit of “imagination” to comprehend because you can’t actually see them.

This sense of imagination that space travel used to evoke just doesn’t seem to be there for kids anymore. The shuttle program which launched 4-5 shuttles per year for over 30 years into space has become viewed by the public as “routine” to some extent; draining some of that sense of adventure and imagination out of space travel. Maybe space travel returning to the realm of “make-believe” at least with NASA in the United States for a while is a good thing, particularly if when it returns it is able to rekindle children’s imaginations like it once did. I for one hope so.

Maybe it’s just me, what do you think? Is the magic of space travel gone?

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