April 20, 2012

As the space shuttle Discovery soared past the Washington Monument and traveled up the Mall on top of a 747, folks on roofs snapped photos and cheered. It was a victory lap for a space exploration program that has known its share of triumph and tragedy. But more than that, it was a reminder of the depth of ingenuity and collaboration that Americans past and present have exhibited, achieving marvels that surpassed the human understanding that prevailed mere decades before. It also was an inspiring moment that evoked feelings of patriotism and pride in America. Where do we find this kind of inspiration today?

America has had to make hard choices in the wake of the recession, but it cannot regain its footing and prominence, as well as its prosperity, solely by relying on cutting expenses and programs. America cannot afford to underestimate or squander its power to inspire its citizens and the rest of the world through innovation and discovery. We have seen the benefits of this power in the past. Let’s use it now. The America that produced the shuttle is a country with heart, confidence and endless potential.

Molly R. Bryson, Washington

Just when I had resigned myself to not seeing Discovery except on television, something magical happened. The space shuttle and its 747 carrier, seemingly out of nowhere, appeared over my Northwest D.C. neighborhood, so low in the sky that I had the sense I could touch them. Then, just as suddenly, the aircraft disappeared over the tree tops.

What a moment! A day later, I’m still giddy with excitement.

Barbara Burger, Washington

I’d just like to thank the pilots who flew Discovery directly over our Washington Navy Yard building three times. I felt like a 5-year-old all over again, watching John Glenn rocket into space in 1962. Magnificent!

Dale E. Allen, Alexandria

On Tuesday morning, much of Washington stopped to watch the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery. Office workers crowded rooftops and streets while the shuttle and its carrier circled downtown. It was an incredible sight and a wonderful reminder of the past glories of America’s space program. Several generations of schoolchildren and adults have been inspired by the scores of human beings who peacefully journeyed to space on NASA shuttles on behalf of mankind.

Even today, as NASA’s shuttles are all retired, children dream of becoming astronauts. But U.S. astronauts now travel to space on other nations’ vehicles. It’s not the same thing, and it does not feed either our national pride nor nurture our children’s aspirations. One hopes that the politicians who stood among the crowds and watched Discovery can move to restore the vigor of our manned space program. It’s an investment we cannot afford to delay.

Jim Hoehn, Gaithersburg

Does Metro do NASA’s scheduling? No wonder they’re retiring the shuttle. The only schedule people in the D.C. area were given was that the 747 and shuttle would go up the Potomac, over Reagan National Airport and be in the District between 10 and 11 a.m.

The flight went over Reagan by 9:50; it was indeed in and around the District between 10 and 11, but somehow that doesn’t seem like rocket-science scheduling.

More like Metro scheduling: Just stay where you are; it will be along sometime.

Jack Rafuse, Alexandria

Discovery’s aerial display over Washington was a fitting tribute to an American icon. Yet the truth is that the grounding of the shuttle fleet is actually many years past due. The Rogers and Paine Commissions that reviewed the Challenger accident in 1986 concluded that a replacement vehicle was needed within 15 years. This timetable, if observed by Congress and NASA, would have grounded all the shuttles in 2001.

But if one would look to the bright side of a promising U.S. space age future, then one should heartily applaud the coming commercial launches that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. will carry out in coming weeks and months under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) contract with NASA. These commercial cargo flights to the international space station could morph into human-rated systems in future years. The success of SpaceShipOne, which won the XPrize, the new COTS vehicles by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences and the 2013 commercial space flight of Virgin Galactic to lift civilian astronauts into space promises a new commercial space age.

The heroic shuttle missions should be celebrated, but let’s not be despondent about the end of the shuttle era. Instead, we should salute the promising developments of an exciting commercial space age that is just on the horizon.

Joseph N. Pelton, Arlington

The writer is a former director of the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University.