I remember watching on TV as Columbia – the first of the Space Shuttles — launched on its first mission, back in 1981. It was exciting to see, and seemed to indicate that the US was committed to a continuing presence in space. Even more exciting, for me, was the landing, several days later. No spacecraft yet built had ever landed gently, like an airplane. We were definitely on the way to developing “real” spacecraft, it seemed.
Like many others my age, I also vividly remember hearing about the Challenger explosion — and, years later, Columbia’s breakup upon re-entry. Pushing the boundaries of technology is inherently risky — but it can also be very rewarding.
Today, the future of the US space program seems far less certain. The Space Shuttles have flown for the last time, and are being decommissioned and moved to static displays at prominent aerospace museums throughout the US. The Atlantic has an excellent photo essay on the process, including many interesting facts. (For instance, the shuttles are being refitted with replica engines — the fifteen originals are being kept for re-use in NASA’s new heavy-lift project.)
It’s well worth the time to read — the Shuttle program was a big part of the history of the US space program. For me, it’s sad to see the fleet sent into retirement without a clear idea of what will come next. It’s another reminder that, despite all of the technological progress of the past several decades, our spaceflight capabilities are a pitiful shadow of what they once were.
My parents remember buying their first TV set to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps onto the Moon. As for me, I was born the same day that Apollo 17 splashed down. Nobody has walked on the Moon in my lifetime — and we’re reduced to relying on the 1960s-era Soyuz rockets for access to the International Space Station. With all of the technological know-how we have, we can do better.