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The Shuttle: From Magnificence to Mothballs

July 3, 2011

April 12, 2011 marked 30 years since the very first space shuttle, Columbia, blazed into low-Earth orbit to the amazement and delight of all Americans. It was the first re-usable spacecraft. It could take off like a rocket and land like an airplane. 50% of the current world population wasn’t even alive in 1981. The internet, cell phones, digital cameras, Viagra, AIDS, and social networking didn’t exist. The Hubble Telescope was still on the drawing board and a fully operational GPS system was still 15 years away. If you had a computer then, it was probably a Commodore 64 which had a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM memory. And if you were fortunate enough to have a disk drive, it used a 640k floppy. My current computer has 63 times the RAM and its hard drive holds almost 1600 times the data.

This Friday, July 8, 2011, will signal the end of that era. After 135 shuttle missions for a fleet of 6 orbiters, the construction of the International Space Station, the deployment of hundreds of satellites, and the loss of two shuttles and 14 crew members along the way, the space shuttle Atlantis (if all is A-OK) will take the final bow… and then become a museum exhibit. Because there is no other shuttle to back up Atlantis in case of an emergency, this crew will be limited to 3 men and 1 woman. The mission is a humble one – to ferry a year’s worth of supplies to the space station and haul broken equipment and other junk back to Earth for disposal. When Atlantis touches down, 9,000 shuttle-related employees will be out of work.

All this is sad enough, but what’s even worse is that America’s role as the world’s leader in manned spaceflight, at least for quite a while, will be over. We will be reduced to hitching rides on Russian rockets and depending on the European, Indian, and Chinese space agencies as well as forthcoming private launch companies to deploy our satellites. The goal of sending astronauts to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars seems much less achievable than it once did. The shuttle program was extremely expensive at over $200 Billion, but its contribution to science was immeasurable. I wouldn’t want to be living up there on the space station knowing that the vehicle that made it possible for me to be there will no longer exist.

It is with a tear in my eye that I pause to remember Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor, the approximately 400 astronauts and passengers who flew on them, plus the numerous ground personnel that made the shuttle program and the International Space Station realities. This was certainly one for the history books.

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