The Final Frontier (Star Trek and OSIRIS-REx)

Kennedy Space Center.

Like many, I was disappointed when NASA mothballed the space shuttle.

Spurred by funding concerns, NASA abandoned its space shuttle program in 2011--ostensibly to concentrate more on deep space exploration missions. Missions like the flight of OSIRIS-REx, NASA'S new asteroid sampling expedition, which has the potential to uncover new data about the origins of life on Earth.

On my way back from Peru, I once again stopped off in Florida--ostensibly to revisit the all-American family I stayed with on my last visit, and in actuality because there was rocketry afoot. The OSIRIS-REx mission was due to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, and I couldn't resist the chance to have a look.

With the excitement of a drunken child, I gathered alongside my American friends at the bleachers just outside Kennedy Space Center.  Over us towered an enormous orange fuel tanker, bracketed by defunct booster rockets; leftover equipment from the space shuttle program, now added to the Space Center's impressive retinue of museum pieces.  

People gather at Kennedy Space Center to watch a rocket launch.

The sun was setting behind the big fuel tank, painting everything in pleasing shades of yellow and pale blue. The crowd looked expectantly up to the skies--or toward the huge TV screen in front of the bleachers, which was showing updates on the launch. We waited, air thrumming with the excitement that only a good countdown can bring.

It was September 8th 2016. 50 years earlier, Star Trek had premiered. 


Dum dah dah dah...

When I was a child, I watched a group of old men shuffle about the Starship Enterprise.

This wasn't the 1960s Star Trek television series, with its garish colours and "special" effects. It wasn't the 1980s and 1990s series, with their slick spaceships and oppressive utopianism. This was the Star Trek of 1980s cinema, a film series about a crew of ageing heroes struggling to adapt to a changing future.

There was The Wrath of Khan, where Captain Kirk grappled with his growing age and fallibility; The Search for Spock, where a crew of scrappy retirees took on Starfleet's newest technology and won; The Voyage Home where Kirk and crew went on a whale-watching cruise; and The Undiscovered Country, where a bunch of elderly veterans overcame their own racism.

It was curious for a franchise about the future to spend so much time on people stuck in the past, but it gave iconic characters room to breathe and change and feel like real people in a way they had never quite before (not to mention show off some rather fetching cummerbunds). And there was still an atmosphere of optimism to the proceedings. Despite the looming spectre of obsolescence and death, the films always featured a prominent sequence of the Enterprise launching, a rebirth complete with pomp and fanfare.

Pictured: Hairpieces.

It was a film series about endings; a group of explorers facing their last days, making peace with their legacies and shortcomings. And when the film series finally ended, with Kirk and his crew retiring as relics, it did so with the promise (delivered through one of William Shatner's esoterically spoken speeches) that humanity's mission to explore the final frontier would continue, albeit with a different kind of ship and crew.

This, more than trinkets like warp engines and phaser pistols, seemed to embody the promise of a hopeful future: the idea that every ending might spur a better beginning. And that even after they had had their day, the old dogs could still help to inspire the way forward. 


Obsolete rockets at Kennedy Space Center.

There are some who believe that life here began out there.

That is, in part, what the OSIRIS-REx mission is out to discover. 

Panspermia is a theory for the origin of life on Earth, which postulates that life may have come from outer space. That is, that the first microbes (or the materials to form the first microbes) might have been brought to the infant Earth by stray comets or asteroid fragments. It's a theory that NASA's latest mission intends to test. The OSIRIS-REx probe is due to rendezvous with an ancient asteroid named Bennu--a lump of rock almost as old as the solar system, which the probe will sample for materials that might help us understand the beginnings of life on Earth.

Below left: The Space Shuttle Atlantis, last of her kind to fly, now a museum piece.

Below right: The SPACE X launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

It's a bold mission, one that will take four years to complete, at a cost of around $985 million. Meanwhile, NASA's facilities at Cape Canaveral are abuzz with future plans to settle Mars, with scientists engaged in a fierce debate over whether it would be sensible to try colonising the moon first. NASA's newest space vehicle (the Space Launch System) is in development, while the private company SPACE X has taken over one of the Cape Canaveral launch pads, developing its own innovative, reusable space vehicles.

OSIRIS-REx launches.

The space shuttle Atlantis sits in a museum in Kennedy Space Center, behind the old orange fuel tank--just next to where I watched the OSIRIS-REx launch. The Atlantis doesn't fly anymore. She's in permanent mothballs, the relic of a bygone era--hoping to inspire the throngs of schoolchildren and space enthusiasts who frequently flock to see her.

Sometimes its easy to feel that Earth's space missions are falling back, winding down; we don't even go to the moon anymore. But NASA is still launching, with companies like SPACE X not far behind. 

Sooner or later, our old heroes retire. But that doesn't mean there isn't a new generation just waiting to spur the future on.   


> For those wondering at the movie omissions: The Motion Picture is another film about Captain Kirk having a midlife crisis. The Final Frontier, on the other hand, is a film about William Shatner having a midlife crisis.

> Kennedy Space Centre is the Disneyland of space travel, and a fun day trip, full of old rockets and former NASA employees willing to tell you all about their history. The only downside is that it's located in Florida--meaning that, like everything else in the Sunshine State, it's impossible to visit without the use of car.