I stayed up late — after midnight Eastern Time — to follow the news reports of the Russian space station Mir burning up and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. It was a maneuver carefully planned to minimize the risk of damage as the abandoned station came down to Earth. It was something to see, not just because it was the largest artificial object ever to fall from space, but because it represented the end of an era in space exploration.

The purpose of the early space programs was to prove that space was within reach. The U.S. space program set out to prove that people could go places in space. The Soviet space program, continued by the Russians, intended to show how people could live and work in space. Both were successful; the points have been made, the lessons have been learned. The emphasis is now shifting to the practical value of space travel, and this represents a new era in space.

The spectacle of Mir falling over the Pacific demonstrated that we are not in the space age yet. CNN’s reporter in Fiji commented that the falling fragments seemed to be very low in the sky. In fact, the fragments were ten times as far away as they appeared, and moving ten times as fast, at a speed greater than our senses tell us is possible. It is the nature of space that things move fast — and that is just one of the many qualities of space that are not yet part of our common experience.

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