On the morning of April 12, 1981, I had the privilege of doing something few other 6-year-olds got to do: I watched the very first Space Shuttle launch from the air near Cape Canaveral.
My father, at the time, owned a helicopter charter company and was flying press runs and national news anchors from hotels to the Cape (Dan Rather was nice enough to let me get some sleep in his hotel room the night before the launch). At the time, the launch of Columbia marked the end of a six-year American-less era in space, as the Shuttle program succeeded the Apollo program that by the year 1975 had become a service vehicle for the joint Russian Skylab program.
The optimism that spring morning was palatable, as thousands of people camped out all night and filled the causeway over the Banana River and lined the streets and beaches of Titusville and beyond. They had reason to be optimistic about this new age of space exploration. This “Space Shuttle” — designed in the 1960s, built and tested in the 1970s — would usher in a new era of cheap and frequent manned space flight. In fact, it would become so commonplace people would probably cease to notice. With space flight being affordable and accessible, it was only a matter of time before the idea of growing up to become an astronaut wouldn’t require all those years of studying and hard work; why, anyone could go!
As we know now, it was not to be. NASA’s first attempt to put a civilian in space ended in spectacular tragedy when the Shuttle Challenger broke up during liftoff on a frigid day in January, 1986.
This disaster, later attributed technically to an O-ring failure in the shuttle’s solid rocket booster, but more broadly attributed to a rushed and overambitious schedule and bureaucratic negligence, grounded the program for 2 1/2 years.
The attempt to force the shuttle to live up to its expectations as a “space bus” made it anything but. Not since three astronauts perished on the pad during a test of Apollo I in 1967 had NASA lost a crew, proving again space flight was fraught with risk, and always would be.
The shuttle which lit up the Central Florida sky on that April morning in 1981 would also meet a tragic demise almost 22 years later when Columbia burned up during reentry over Texas. But while Challenger felt like a national tragedy on par with the Kennedy assassination, Columbia felt like just another sad story in the wake of 9/11 and the ho-hum reaction the program had garnered over the two decades following its inauguration.
But these tragedies were 2 out of a total of 135 missions. There were memorable moments of triumph: space walks, the first American woman in space, the first black American in space, etc. One of the shuttle’s most amazing and memorable moments came when astronauts repaired the Hubble Telescope’s faulty mirror, resulting in fantastic images and a treasure trove of information about our universe.
At the end of its run, the Shuttle completed over 20,000 orbits around the Earth, spent over 1,300 days in space, and launched over 3.5 million pounds of cargo, and docked with the International Space Station 31 times. The total cost of 30 years of these missions was $209 billion.
Was it worth it? Certainly there are the intangible aspects: the civic pride in our nation accomplishing that which is both hard, and in the case of space flight, visually spectacular and technologically impressive.
The same question could be asked about the much more lauded Apollo program: Was going to the moon worth it? Most would say yes. Americans eventually grew apathetic toward the moon missions, but in 1969 and 1970 they represented both a triumph of American ingenuity and know-how, as well as a vitally important strategic and national defense victory over the Soviets.
Those missions captured the collective imagination in a way not seen since. The moon missions had a purpose; there was a sense we were going somewhere. We all could look up at that bright, shiny moon in the night sky and think about how lucky those few men, who actually got to walk on it, were. And what must it be like for them … to stand back here on Earth after all these years, step outside and look up on a clear night, and think to themselves: “I’ve been there.”
What will people say 30 years from now about the Shuttle program? In fact, how many people could describe the purpose or importance of more than one or two of the 135 shuttle missions?
Looking back seems like hazy and fuzzy memories of secret payloads, carrying VIPs or an Original NASA 7-turned-Senator, international outreach, some ant farms, and servicing a tin can that repeatedly circles the earth with some poor Russians aboard so they can go home after a year in their floating prison only to have their fellow countrymen inform us all that extended periods of weightlessness is bad for the physique.
The shuttle mission immediately following the Columbia accident apparently had the purpose of launching itself into space so it could then inspect itself with external cameras in order to make sure it could safely return.
But now the Russians are gloating. The Americans have retreated, and finally, after all these decades, they own Space (at least until the Chinese show up)!
And what will they do with it, now that they’re rid of those cowboy Americans who are always taking all the glory? Perhaps they could start by cleaning up all the space debris circling the planet and endangering other vehicles and space travelers, attributed mostly to themselves and their communist Chinese counterparts. Or perhaps they’ll turn Mir into a Hilt-
Now that they’re rid of the pesky competition, will they land a man (or woman!) on the moon? Will they travel to Mars? Will they perform a synchronized space ballet using multiple spaceships set to ‘The Waltz of the Blue Danube’? Probably not. It’s more likely they’ll continue keeping their human guinea pigs locked up in that jail known as the International Space Station.
When it comes to space flight since the Apollo moon landings, the important and lasting accomplishments have been made sans human. Voyager, launched in the 70s, is still sending back incredible images from the far reaches of the Solar System. The Mars Rover turned what looked like a boring red rock into a desert oasis for all to see. The Hubble continues to answer questions pondered for centuries. In the history of space flight, unmanned space missions have arguably returned more bang for the buck, and without the loss of life.
This is not a case against manned space exploration. Man (generic) possesses an innate desire to explore all he can in his universe, and there’s no reason he should not do it now.
Whether his government should do it is another matter.
The Space Shuttle program arguably became just another government work program, one with no clear purpose, a tangled and bloated bureaucracy, and hundreds of thousands of employees no one could ever lay off.
It’s possible in later years the program merely existed for its own sake. The Shuttle was never going to get us to the moon, or to Mars, or to anywhere else, really. It was just going to continue circling the earth, year after year, performing some experiment or another no one really bothered to talk about.
Considering what was accomplished in a few short years in the 1960s, we Americans should be spending Fourth of July weekends at the W Luna right now. Or at least have some kind of colony where we send workers for month-long shifts mining for some valuable resource we can’t get here on Earth.
But alas, the moon sits lonely once again, not to mention the unattainable neighbor, Mars.
Perhaps like nearly everything else it sinks its grubby paws into, the government has failed us here as well. … The space program became just another aimless government program. Perhaps those of us who actually see the value in manned space exploration — for material, intellectual, and spiritual attainment — have been done a favor.
Maybe now we can have a space program with a point — one with profit potential — one that captures the imagination. Maybe now that the American government is out of the way, real Americans can rise to the occasion and shine. Maybe now it really won’t be another few decades before we can take a date to dinner and a luxury hotel with a great view of Earth for a long weekend. Maybe energy companies can set up shop on the moon where they won’t be pestered by Congress and the EPA (for awhile). Maybe just a guy with a lot of money can book that first trip to Mars.
Thanks to the end of the Shuttle era, we can still dream.