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April 15, 2012

A Space Shuttle Celebration

For those of us at a certain age, the space shuttle represents the United States space program. We were kids when the shuttles first started their regular trips into orbit to run experiments in zero gravity or deploy satellites or whatever they were going to be doing.

We were too young for the Apollo space flights and Moon landings, and even the space station didn't really capture our awe of the universe and what might be out there. Perhaps that's because, while the shuttles would never go further than the space station, at least they were vehicles that were reaching for the stars, even if they never actually got there.

When the final shuttle mission ended last Summer, with Atlantis touching down after another trip to the space station, I have to admit I felt a little sad.

(Thanks to The Word of Ward)

Something that had been around since my childhood, the public face of NASA, was now no more.

Yes, there are still plenty of cool things going on in the space program, including ongoing images of Mars from the various robotic missions that have been sent up there (though mysteriously, a number of mishaps have prevented even more Mars exploration, such as the Mars Polar Lander crashing in 2005).

But unless you're really into space science, you really don't hear about all of that stuff unless something happens, which may prompt a short blurb on the news or in the newspaper. The shuttle was it.

I remember watching with rapt attention whenever the shuttle was going to be launched. It was just such a cool thing to see that huge blast of gas and exhaust as the rockets fired and the long torpedo-like fuel tank that dwarfed the shuttle itself slowly rose from its station.

(Thanks to How Stuff Works)

It carried a majesty that was hard to compare to anything else going on in our lives.

I also remember the horror when I heard that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986. I was fifteen, in my first year of high school. I don't remember exactly how we were told, unfortunately. It may have been an intercom announcement. It may have just been buzz around the school. It was being followed because school teacher Christa McAuliffe was on that flight. It was a tragedy no matter who was on it, of course, but it hit home for us a little more because one of us were on the flight. Astronauts were heroes, but we couldn't always relate to them. But a teacher? Somebody like our Biology teacher, who we could have known? That really hurt.

After a hiatus while they checked into safety procedures and reworked things, shuttle flights continued, and they almost became passe. That's a shame, because the engineering prowess it takes to do any of this stuff, whether it's getting them ready for launch or docking with a moving object in space or whatever, is simply phenomenal when you think about it.

And now the shuttle is done. The shuttle Discovery is preparing to make its final journey, to the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Carried as always on the back of a trusty 747 airplane, the same way it habitually made its trip from its landing zone in California back to where it launches in Florida.

(Thanks to the Daily Mail UK and, of course, Reuters)

Hopefully it will capture the attention of youth who go there for many years to come.

Of course, there are the old arguments that have probably been going on since the Shuttle program began: is this a good way to use our space resources? Does this move our attempts to explore the solar system and the galaxy forward at all? Why can't we go back to the Moon and, later, Mars and even further? Does the Shuttle program represent stagnation?

All of those questions and argument are valid.

But as the shuttle goes off into Smithsonian retirement, those aren't the questions that come to mind right now.

Instead, I wonder if anything in our space program will ever capture the attention of the public again. Will we ever see another spectacle that will wow us? That will keep us glued to the news when it launches or when whatever it is happens? That will renew the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Apollo missions and the shuttles did when they first started?

I truly hope so.


  1. I'm dating myself here, but I was a child of the Moon landing era and the Mercury and Apollo generations of space flight. I remember watching the TV in black and white as that first step was taken on the moon. I remember the Mercury disaster where we lost Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffey and Ed White. I was very young at that time, but both events are very clear in my memory. We went on to experience the Glory Years of the Apollo generation of flights and it was a truly hope filled. optimistic time in our history where as a nation, we were proud of this achievement.

    I find the closing of the final (to this point) generation of our Space Program to be very sad, and I will always be a proponent of this type of exploration. Without dreams of conquering new frontiers, per Star Trek narrative, I think we will stagnate as a world culture. In some the ways that count the most, we have become jaded and inured to the value of space travel. Again, very sad.

    Perhaps the Space Program and NASA as the guiding force will experience a rebirth and revitalization, but I am doubtful I will see it again in my lifetime.

    Great post, Dave. :)

    - Dawnie

  2. Thanks, Dawnie!

    Actually, I don't think you're *that* much older than me if I remember correctly, and many of the Apollo missions actually happened in my lifetime (I was born in 1970). I was just too young to remember them.

    I do also find the stagnation of our manned space program to be sad. I think they should really open it up to private people because I also believe that bad economic times makes it difficult to justify the enormous cost in government funds to do it.

    I do hope that it is revitalized, and in our lifetimes. It would be really bad if it took longer than you and I are going to be around to do it.


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