It is easy to forget—and I had myself until a Los Angeles Times local-angle story on the Columbia disaster reminded me—that half a million people gathered to watch the landing at Edwards Air Force base of that lost shuttle's first completed mission in April 1981.
Now, with shuttle flights happening as often as eight times a year, people who aren't checking into Space.com every day or reading the short briefings on page A-16 of most papers would probably not even have been aware that the Columbia was in space until its tragic destruction upon attempting to land.
The human future in space may not involve "space shuttles" per se—a design and a program that space buffs had long been skeptical about. And it may not involve a long, thriving future for the International Space Station, which relies to a large degree on the existing shuttle program.
But if the business of humanity is business, our space future—and present—is looking good. Despite NASA's long opposition to a commercial space industry, commercial space transportation and launches generated over $6.1 billion in economic activity (and nearly half a million jobs) in 1999, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation. In 2001, 15 commercial space launches happened. None of this really makes the news—and that very fact should be encouraging, not discouraging, to space buffs.
Space devotees like to point out that in the 40 years after the first airplane flew, far more humans flew on airplanes than have flown into space in the 40 years since the first manned space flight. This is true. But the Columbia tragedy has shown us that in one respect, space flight has become like air flight. Airline crashes are news. Airline flights are not. The shuttle program has perhaps dimmed the bright romance of space-as-frontier by transforming space travel into something more akin to trucking—a regular fleet of vehicles that take things someplace, nothing earthshaking or fantastically notable. But that is a necessary and vital sign that space travel is now normal—and you can't build a viable future purely on romance.
And that is what guarantees that its importance will continue to grow. In 2001, we saw the first commercial space tourism—a notion that NASA is sadly opposed to participating in. And as space becomes more and more an arena for private experimentation, the future could bring anything from a private Bigelow space station to a Zubrin "Mars Direct" flight. More realistically, it will see a variety of such schemes try and fail. But eventually some will work—just as a variety of different models and business uses of airflight eventually worked.
Crowds of half a million gathered to celebrate the birth of something at that first Columbia landing over 20 years ago. Enthusiasm about birthdays wanes as something gets older. But that doesn't mean the life that grows and matures isn't important. Human exploration, research, and business in space are now an everyday fact of life. Tragedies like the Columbia's breakup won't—and shouldn't—change that. Whether the dominant future of human travel in space is private or public, it will continue. And whether it is nominally a government service, the men and women who do it will remain true public servants, whose actions help guarantee a glorious future for, as Neil Armstrong hinted, not just themselves, but all mankind.
Like all other human endeavors, it will encompass deaths and tragedies. But more than most, it radiates glory—it's the most important step for life on earth since dry land. We may weep over seeing specific space trips end in horror. We should smile over being lucky enough to live in the era where such trips are finally happening.