On the 12th of April, 1981, I was exactly nine and a half years old (half years are important when you’re that young). That was the date of the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, with the Shuttle Columbia spending the next two days in orbit with a small crew of only two astronauts (it was effectively a test flight). I was fairly young, but I do remember watching the news about the launch — it was a big deal at the time. I particularly remember that, differently from later flights, the external fuel tank was white, and not orange — orange is the “natural” colour of the protective foam around the tank, and painting it white added a significant amount of weight to the tank, so they stopped doing it at some point.
On the 28th of January, 1986, I was a bit over 14 years old. That afternoon I was at a friend’s place, his mother had the radio on and I heard something about a rocket exploding after launch in the US, but didn’t pay much attention to it; I didn’t know there was a Shuttle launch on that day, and assumed it had been an unmanned rocket carrying a satellite, or something similar. It wasn’t until I watched the news on TV at night that I knew what had happened to Space Shuttle Challenger, taking off for what was supposed to be mission STS-51-L. I remember being sad on that day and obsessively following the news for weeks after, and I was very happy when Discovery flew the first mission after the accident, in September 1988.
On the 1st of February, 2003, I was already an adult, and I was spending a quiet Saturday at home until I happened to look at the news online (I think it was on cnn.com) and read about what had happened to Space Shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after mission STS-107. I very distinctly remember that my first thought was “not again!” — despite the 17 years that had passed since the previous accident. After that, I turned the TV on and just kept watching for however long they were talking about it. It was another sad day.
On the 21st of July, 2011, I will be nearly 40 years old. It will be 42 years and one day since the first Moon landing, and more than 30 years since that first Columbia flight. That is the scheduled date for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis, completing mission STS-135 — the final Space Shuttle mission, ever. It’s going to be, again, a sad day. I planned on writing more about it, but I don’t think I can do better than what astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I had the opportunity to meet twice, and who is a great person to talk to) said on Twitter: “Many lament the shuttle era’s end. But that’s misplaced sentiment. Lament instead the absence of an era to replace it.”
He’s talking, of course, about the lack of a manned space program on the part of NASA for the immediate future (and, with the difficulties it’s been having to get its budget approved, perhaps the not-so-immediate future as well).
Still, NASA goes on, as does space exploration. Just this week, on July 16th, the spacecraft Dawn will go on orbit around asteroid Vesta — it’s the first probe ever to orbit an asteroid, and in the next few years it will become the first probe ever to orbit two different bodies, when it leaves Vesta to go after dwarf planet Ceres. New Horizons is still on the way to Pluto, which it will reach in July 2015. And many other missions are still flying around the solar system – and, with the two Voyagers, even outside it.
Here’s hoping for continued progress, and hoping that in the future we’ll be able to celebrate the Shuttles as a stepping stone, and not as the end of the road.