When I was a kid, I was pretty into outer space. I was also into fingerprints, dinosaurs, food coloring and putting pieces of plastic shaped like Smurfs in the oven until they became smaller, thicker pieces of plastic shaped like Smurfs. But neither I nor any other kid in my grade wanted to be an astronaut and drink Tang and eat freeze-dried ice cream. NASA made a huge mistake by letting us taste its food.
Being into astronauts was as weird as being into cowboys, circumnavigators or whole-grain cereal. For an adult, it would be even weirder. I can name 20 chefs, 15 models, 12 clothing designers, eight stylists, five farmers and two people whose only credential is being a verified housewife, but the only recent astronaut I can name is a Toy Story character.
Part of the problem is that they don't seem to be doing much up there. The final mission of the shuttle, which was scheduled to land July 21 at Kennedy Space Center, was to go to the International Space Station; drop off a year's worth of food, equipment and spare parts; and pick up nearly 5,700 lb. of old and unneeded material. No one dreams of going to space to be a FedEx guy or a garbageman. Worse, one of the main points of the International Space Station is to study what happens to people when they're in space for a long time. I'll tell you what happens: their spouses cheat on them.
The final shuttle mission is also running an experiment to see if a drug cures osteoporosis in mice, which is actually less exciting than being a space garbageman. And they've taken up thousands of tiny flags, patches and Snoopy pins so they can hand them out later as flags, patches and Snoopy pins that have been in space. If someone gave me a flag, patch or Snoopy pin that had been in space, I would think, "Wow. Where do I throw out this thing that looks just like a regular flag, patch or Snoopy pin?" Can I give people flags, patches and Snoopy pins that have been to the TIME offices, the White House or dinner with George Clooney? Do we really care about the wild adventures of our flags, patches and Snoopy pins? Should I tell my son about how his plastic fire truck endured a long, dangerous sea voyage from China? At least take something cool into space, like the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. That way you could say, "See these shoes? Judy Garland wore them, and then they went into space." Those shoes would show some range.
Even though the more I read about the space shuttle, the less interested I became, I still don't like that it's over. Yes, it seems lame to appreciate things only after they're gone, but that's why Conan O'Brien has a career. Now that we're stuck on earth, it feels as if we not only stopped trying but stopped caring. U.S. human spaceflight was not supposed to end with a garbage-collecting mission. It was supposed to end with a battle against aliens and a speech making clear that the aliens' problems were a metaphor for human foibles such as racism and overpopulation, then a bombastic reading of the captain's log by a man totally unaware of which syllables to stress.
Instead of trying to see how big the universe is, we've focused on making it smaller. We marshal technology to tell our friends which bar we're at on Foursquare and to get us through boring meetings by angering birds. The world outside our own lives has become so unexciting that even crazy people don't bother talking about UFOs anymore.
What we're saying by ending manned spaceflight is "We're good right here." It's the attitude of an older, sedentary country the same response you get when you ask your grandparents if they want to go out for dinner or France if it wants to go to war. The closest we come to thinking about orbits is dragging friends into circles on Google+.
I'm pining for a sense of adventure. Until now, at least we had heroes whose curiosity was so strong, they were willing to risk not only their lives but also that people would find out they wear space diapers. Maybe spaceflight isn't the answer anymore, but we need to take chances exploring fantastic worlds most of us can't even imagine. I'm partial to time machines, but I'm also open to implanting our brains in robots and legalizing gay marriage in Southern states. I just need someone to pull off a feat so incredible that it makes me think about something besides me right after I finish this column, tweet about it and post it on Facebook.