Orlando is a ways away from the Cape, and so we had contented ourselves to watching the launch on NASA TV as Eli slept. It was a night launch too, so it was about 11:00 or so when there was a frantic (and rather loud) knock on our condo door.
My dad didn't wait for me to open the door. "Jase! Quick! You can SEE it! You can SEE it!"
So there we were, making way too much racket for that late at night, watching as the plume of barely-visible smoke rose into the night sky on it's way to a near-earth orbit.
But the Space Shuttle program, for my entire life, was NASA's bread and butter. The crowing achievement of the agency, as well as the nation. My entire generation grew up watching Shuttle launches, and having astronauts as heroes. It was a piece of America, and for a kid who grew up around airplanes, it became almost a part of the landscape, as normal as going to the airport, or hearing an airplane overhead. It was so much a part of our lives that we didn't hardly think it was a big deal sometimes.
I'm told that all the classrooms in my school had the TV on when the Challenger went down. I don't remember watching it, but I do remember I was on the playground and all the other kids were talking about it.
I remember feeling sick when the Columbia came apart, I remember watching the glowing pieces fall on live TV and following the recovery efforts, and the shock and the fear.
And now the chapter is closed, apparently without the next one being written. Yesterday, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely, completing STS-135.
135 flights into space, distributed between five different orbiters is, even with the loss of two, a spectacular human achievement. We should be proud of those brave men and women who worked hard and sacrificed much to push the boundaries of human exploration.
Naturally, this is a bittersweet moment for our nation. On one hand, for the first time since 1961, NASA will not have the capability to send an astronaut into space. This is a humbling, perhaps even humiliating fact for many Americans. There is, as there should be, a large amount of pride in being the premier nation in space exploration. Since we do not have a replacement program, have we wasted the talent and sacrifice of NASA thus far? Have we squandered the bravery and dedication of those who have given their lives in pursuit of space? Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and fellow Michigander shuttle astronaut Jerry Linenger have all shared their disagreement with the decision to end the Shuttle. Linenger, in a recent interview, said,
"The headline should have been, 'United States cancels manned spaceflight program. Unable to get a human being, a US citizen, into space for the first time since 1961. We hope that in five years we are able to build a capsule that we built in 1962.' That's what (the headline) should have read, but the spin is just unbelievable."
On the other hand, another brutal reality: though a spectacular achievement, the Shuttle isn't very practical as a space vehicle. Rockets are far less glamorous, but far less expensive to build and launch.
Also, as any good pilot or mechanic knows, no amount of upgrading and repairing will make an airframe last forever. With the extreme stresses placed upon the orbiters, they will not last as long as some aircraft do, and most aircraft have useful lives of somewhere around 15-20 years. So it's old technology, and the system is showing it's age, and further missions will only increase the danger of catastrophic failure. As much as it pains me to say it, better to quit while ahead.
I would like to think that this will merely be the intermission before the second act. The orbiting capsules that paved the way for the moon shots that paved the way for the Shuttle and the ISS were a spectacular opener, and as we watch the curtain come down on the "Space Bus", let us recapture the imagination and ingenuity that NASA fostered and grew during the 1960's.
Linenger would do well to remember that although the U.S. government lacks the capability of manned space flight, the spirit of innovation and creation is now embodied, at least partially, in private enterprises, many of which will share the heavy lifting of manned space flight in the years to come. Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Scaled Composites are three such companies who are gladly taking up the mantle that NASA has placed in front of them.
It may seem a step back to some, to cut our space program back to where it was in the early 1960's, but we need to remember what happened in 1969. From virtually nothing in 1961, to landing on the moon eight short years later.
Today, as we prepare to send the Atlantis the short distance to it's final home, let us imagine where the curtain will open for the second act.
I vote for the moon.