I watched the Space Shuttle Endeavour blast off this morning on television. Space Shuttle launches never cease to amaze me. What a remarkable sight! This incredible exhibition of science and guts has been captivating the minds and hearts of millions, and arguably billions of people for the past 30 years. The first space shuttle launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981 made the vision and implementation of a re-usable space vehicle a reality. For a program that had been conceived in the 1960’s, it was a long time coming to that memorable day.
For those of us fortunate enough to be alive and aware back in 1981, the launch of Columbia was one of those moments that transcended the science and technology that was on display. This was a seminal event in United States history. It elevated the mood of the country which had been steeped in the clutches of an economic recession (feels familiar?) and political turmoil both abroad and at home, not to mention an assassination attempt on our newly-elected President just a precious few days prior to Columbia’s launch.
My eyes gazed upwards at the sky that day, not in prayer or calling to a higher power, but in fascination of the will, the technical abilities, and the collective knowledge of humankind. And although I happened to be in Dallas at the time and had no chance of seeing anything in the sky … the plume, the rocket boosters, or the orbiting vehicle itself … It did not matter. I had to gaze upwards in the slightest hope of seeing something … anything in the sky, even the faintest glimmer on the horizon would have sufficed. This was my generation’s “Apollo” moment. It was a moment to embrace with pride in a time when moments like this seemed few and far between.
So as I watched Endeavour take its place in orbit around the Earth for the last time, I felt a sinking feeling in my heart because this is the second to last space shuttle launch of all time. A certain sense of “reality” at the finality of this program, something that has been a part of my regular culture, settled in this morning. And with no clear predecessor program to take its place, who knows when we will see our country re-embark on a manned spaceflight program … I hope sometime in my already-half-spent lifetime.
I understand that the STS program has had its fair share of issues and problems, that it regularly came in over budget, and that it has cost the lives of some of the world’s finest astronauts and scientists. But in a very practical sense, STS missions have contributed significantly to our collective understanding of the universe and our unique place within it.
What was supposed to be a much shorter lived program (10 years) speaks volumes to the program’s overall success that the reusable orbiting vehicles have worked three times as long as were originally designed. Their payloads have included some of the “Who’s Who” of modern science and technology, including The Hubble Space Telescope, Gallileo, Spacelab, Magellan, and The International Space Station, just to name a few. Some of the finest scientists, technicians, engineers, and supporting personnel have played a role in the great successes of the program. They are to be thanked and saluted.
The future of the American space program seems somewhat enigmatic. Sure, there is still plenty for NASA to do, with programs consisting of satellite launches, robotic explorers, and other non-manned opportunities. But the future of human space flight being led by The United States is in flux. If other countries take up the slack and eclipse America’s leadership role in space exploration, then more power to them. Someone is going to pick up where we seem to be content with leaving off.
If and when the United States chooses to get back into the manned space game, I hope we won’t be too late. Between the discontinued infrastructure and specialized personnel that we are letting go, who knows if we could ever afford to re-establish the the top-notch program that human space exploration requires. Just like 30 years ago, all I can do is look upward in awe and wonder.
“Excitement so thick, you could cut it with a knife, technology high on the leading edge of life … Like a pillar of cloud, the smoke lingers high in the air, in fascination, with the eyes of the world we stare.” – Rush, lyrics from ‘Countdown’, as they witnessed live the Columbia launch in 1981.