After a span of 30 years the space shuttle program ended on July 21 when Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The landing represented the conclusion of the 135th flight of the reusable space plane, and for me, the end of the only manned space program I had ever really known.
I was born during the height of the Apollo program, just one year before Neil Armstrong made his legendary “just one small step for man…one giant leap for all mankind” speech, and I have vague recollections of Skylab as the Saturn V-based launches waned, but what I really remember is all the buzz leading up to the space shuttle program. I recall how rabid Star Trek fans waged a grass-roots campaign to have the first shuttle named after the starship “Enterprise.” With no Internet and the launch of CNN still three years away, video of its glide tests, after being dropped from a Boeing 747, were fodder for the evening news. (As a flight-test aircraft, NASA’s Enterprise never went into space.)
The major events of the shuttle program remain touchstones in my life, those moments that you can clearly remember where you were when you heard the news, just as an earlier generation can remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot. On the day of the first shuttle launch, Columbia in April 1981, televisions were wheeled into every classroom in my junior high school, and we watched transfixed as John Young and Robert Crippen “rode the stack” for the first time into space.
With each subsequent successful launch, however, part of the novelty faded. As it was intended, the launches became commonplace, as the shuttles fulfilled their role as space trucks. Ford even ran a commercial that likened the shape of its new Aerostar minivan to the shuttle. News outlets devoted less and less time to the shuttle launches.
That changed in the mid-80s, when NASA announced that it would select a schoolteacher to ride into space and conduct science lessons in orbit, which were to be broadcast back to Earth. As evidence of how jaded we had become, I was sleeping in when the Challenger lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986. A high school student at the time, I had no classes on that winter day because of standardized tests I was not required to take. I awoke to the sounds of a news report coming from our living-room television.
As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, they found their way to the floor and focused on the wreckage of a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise (yes, Star Trek’s Enterprise) that had sat firmly on my dresser for years. During the night, one of our cats must have knocked it down, causing it to shatter. It was then that the words of the TV reporter began to sink in: “73 seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger has exploded…” I sat there for a few moments, pondering the meaning of that omen, before heading off to watch the endless replays of that ethereal “Y” formed in the sky by Challenger’s runaway rocket boosters.
After being grounded for nearly three years, the shuttle program resumed and the nation held its collective breath as Discovery was lofted into orbit by a pair of redesigned solid rocket boosters. Shuttle flights quickly became commonplace again.
Fast forward 15 years to 2003. During this period, the shuttle fleet (augmented by the arrival of Endeavor, to replace the lost Challenger) deployed dozens of satellites, launched and made four service calls to the Hubble Space Telescope, carried several “black” military payloads to orbit, and supported the construction of the International Space Station. On February 1, I was skiing in upstate New York, and had just come in from a run when I noticed a crowd gathered around the televisions in the bar area–all of them tuned to CNN. I watched transfixed, as the network broadcast from Nacogdoches, Texas, a town I had never heard of, and I quickly learned that NASA had lost another crew and another nearly $2 billion shuttle.
The shuttle program returned again with additional safety protections aimed at avoiding the foam-insulation strike that doomed Columbia. NASA instituted a new protocol to thoroughly examine the shuttle’s exterior after the craft was in orbit, but the program’s days were numbered. As the scheduled flights dwindled to a handful, the Agency announced the location of the “retirement homes” for the three surviving shuttles.
Once they are decommissioned, decontaminated, transported and installed in their respective institutions, I will take my young sons to see them and describe how they rose on a pillar of fire and achieved mind-boggling speeds. But I can’t help wonder if gazing at these magnificent flying machines–emblems of American know-how, ability and technology for an entire generation–will be like looking at a crippled eagle perched on a fake branch in an aviary of a nature preserve: a stalwart of the sky, fated to fly nevermore.