The last Space Shuttle returned from the heavens this week, and what has been a 50 year run of incredible space ambition in the US is now, well, lots of talk and not much else. As a kid growing up in LA in the ’80s, the Shuttle was a huge part of my life. Back then, the Shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Those early morning sonic booms were a welcome wake-up call. Even after landings were switched to Florida, the occasional landing at Edwards would bring the twin boom and a flood of memories.
I was a proud member of Young Astronauts in school, and I can still remember exactly where I was when I heard that Challenger had exploded after launch. I was in 3rd grade and I was playing ga-ga ball with friends. One of my friends came running out and said his mom (who worked at the school) had told him that the Challenger had exploded. We didn’t believe him. We assumed that since we could hear the sonic boom when the Shuttle landed, we’d certainly be able to hear an explosion when it launched. We weren’t really thinking that launch was 2,000 miles away.
When we came back into class, our teacher sat us down and turned on the TV. We all sat there in stunned silence. It was the same feeling I had when I woke up to find that Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entry back in 2003.
I loved space enough that I convinced my parents to let me go to Space Camp in 7th grade with two of my friends. At the time, Space Camp had just opened a facility near Kennedy Space Center, and that’s where we went. Though Jinx never did launch us into space like that lucky punk Joaquin Phoenix, it was a week of awesomeness (even if I was just a Payload Specialist). A Shuttle launch was scheduled during our time there, but it was scrubbed. That was as close as I ever got to seeing a launch, but I was hooked. I even wore my light blue flight suit on the flight back home. (Sadly, I can’t find a picture of that right now, just one with the t-shirt.)
The general consensus seems to be that the Shuttle was an ill-advised turn for the space program, and we could have spent our resources more wisely. That’s fine and all, but as the Shuttle program comes to a close, let’s still celebrate what an incredible technical achievement it was. Whether it was the right way to go or not, everyone who worked on putting that program together should be proud of not only the technical achievement but also how the work they did pulled so many kids into dreaming about space throughout the 1980s.
I really hope that we see a revitalized program with missions to the moon, asteroids, and Mars in the not-too-distant future, but I know better than to hold out too much hope. And that brings us to the topic of the week. Where would you like to see the space program go? And will it ever get there?