New Dreams

Jessica Ebert
by Jessica Ebert

“It’s the death of a dream,” I ranted. My sister, who was visiting from Oregon, patiently responded that I shouldn’t be so upset; that NASA made the announcement more than five years ago; that I’ve had plenty of time to prepare myself.

But I hadn’t. I let the first announcement of the plan to retire the space shuttle program flit across my brain without so much as committing it to any thought or speculation. Five, six years is an awfully long time, right?

But here it was, July 8, 2011, and I was sitting there watching Atlantis rip through the sky in what would be the final flight of the shuttle program. And now…now I’m ready to tantrum.

What about the kids? What kind of astronaut dreams will they have now? What about…Space Camp? Space Camp, that little movie from 1986 about the astronaut camp for kids. I watched it every Saturday morning for six months straight, and then I would race around the house quoting (in an appropriate Southern accent), “He winked at me. John Glenn winked at me! I’m going up. I am. I’m going up!”

I would probably feel less desperate, less dramatic about this whole thing if there was a technology or program waiting in the wings to claim center stage. Something like heavy-lift rockets for deep-space travel or even commercial shuttles for low-orbit tours. But neither of these are near-term possibilities.

My dad would say it’s a time for new dreams, bigger dreams. So what will they be? What will the little kids whisper about and imagine as they spread Grandma’s quilt across the sand and stare up into that great, black, sparkly dome of the unexplored?

Maybe robotics, or rocket engineering, or a desire to relocate to Russia from where we’ll be hitching rides to the space station for the foreseeable future, or maybe, just maybe, those little kids will dream about…

Astrobiology—the discipline that deals with understanding the origins of life on this planet and the possibility that life is not unique to Earth. Many of the current astrobiological efforts involve the study of what microbiologists call extremophiles—those organisms that have evolved to master the seeming impossibilities that allow them to survive and often thrive at the extremes of life e.g. in the very hot, the very cold, the very dry, the very acidic.

Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary science that is well served by research microbiologists. It’s a discipline that, over the past couple of years, more and more of my students have chosen as a focus of papers and projects and, in a couple of cases, as a prospect for a graduate school program. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll be the science that becomes the new dream for a generation of kids that will never know what it’s like to watch a manned space shuttle lift off from U.S. soil.

For more info on NASA’s astrobiology program as well as the microbiologists working in this area, visit: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/


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