The recent final flight of the shuttle program with launch of the shuttle Atlantis brings to a close not only a 30-year-old NASA endeavor, but also an end to an era in spaceflight. The last launch was the object of much attention and nostalgia, with some sadness at the loss of 10,000 jobs associated with the program. And for the next few years at least we will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the International Space Station. I was thinking with all this how I more or less grew up with the space program.
I was born in 1947, a couple of years after World War II, when former German V-2 missile scientists worked with their American counterparts to develop the launch vehicles for the manned space program. I remember the furor surrounding the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and the excitement with the launch of our first satellite, Explorer 1, in January of 1958. The manned space program started when I was in intermediate school with Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit in April of 1961 and Alan Shepherd’s suborbital flight in May of that year. The schools broadcast the launches over the PA (sorry kids, no TV’s in the rooms then). During high school we listened to the Mercury flights of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter launched aboard a modified ICBM that was prone to exploding; college was while the Gemini missions and Apollo program were going on with the moon landing July 20, 1969. When I started teaching, the program consisted of Skylab using left-over Apollo equipment. I had been in the classroom ten years when the first shuttle launched, with many more to follow. I also remember listening to the account of the Challenger disaster as I drove home in the middle of a school workday because I was not feeling well. The loss of the Columbia happened on a Saturday morning as I was getting a tire fixed.
And now the end of the shuttle flights. Replacement rockets based on the cancelled Orion system are years away, but I hope they lead to a crewed return to the moon and even to Mars. In the ‘sixties, there were some critics of the space program, saying the money could be better spent on social programs. I believe we can do both and that it is as important to continue to explore, to discover and to venture out as it is to take care of each other.
So, Godspeed, Atlantis and your crew. Do well and have a safe landing. It’s the end of an era for all of us.