We were too young for the Apollo space flights and Moon landings, and even the space station didn't really capture our awe of the universe and what might be out there. Perhaps that's because, while the shuttles would never go further than the space station, at least they were vehicles that were reaching for the stars, even if they never actually got there.
When the final shuttle mission ended last Summer, with Atlantis touching down after another trip to the space station, I have to admit I felt a little sad.
(Thanks to The Word of Ward)
Something that had been around since my childhood, the public face of NASA, was now no more.
Yes, there are still plenty of cool things going on in the space program, including ongoing images of Mars from the various robotic missions that have been sent up there (though mysteriously, a number of mishaps have prevented even more Mars exploration, such as the Mars Polar Lander crashing in 2005).
But unless you're really into space science, you really don't hear about all of that stuff unless something happens, which may prompt a short blurb on the news or in the newspaper. The shuttle was it.
I remember watching with rapt attention whenever the shuttle was going to be launched. It was just such a cool thing to see that huge blast of gas and exhaust as the rockets fired and the long torpedo-like fuel tank that dwarfed the shuttle itself slowly rose from its station.
(Thanks to How Stuff Works)
It carried a majesty that was hard to compare to anything else going on in our lives.
I also remember the horror when I heard that the space shuttle Challenger had blown up 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986. I was fifteen, in my first year of high school. I don't remember exactly how we were told, unfortunately. It may have been an intercom announcement. It may have just been buzz around the school. It was being followed because school teacher Christa McAuliffe was on that flight. It was a tragedy no matter who was on it, of course, but it hit home for us a little more because one of us were on the flight. Astronauts were heroes, but we couldn't always relate to them. But a teacher? Somebody like our Biology teacher, who we could have known? That really hurt.
After a hiatus while they checked into safety procedures and reworked things, shuttle flights continued, and they almost became passe. That's a shame, because the engineering prowess it takes to do any of this stuff, whether it's getting them ready for launch or docking with a moving object in space or whatever, is simply phenomenal when you think about it.
And now the shuttle is done. The shuttle Discovery is preparing to make its final journey, to the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Carried as always on the back of a trusty 747 airplane, the same way it habitually made its trip from its landing zone in California back to where it launches in Florida.
(Thanks to the Daily Mail UK and, of course, Reuters)
Hopefully it will capture the attention of youth who go there for many years to come.
Of course, there are the old arguments that have probably been going on since the Shuttle program began: is this a good way to use our space resources? Does this move our attempts to explore the solar system and the galaxy forward at all? Why can't we go back to the Moon and, later, Mars and even further? Does the Shuttle program represent stagnation?
All of those questions and argument are valid.
But as the shuttle goes off into Smithsonian retirement, those aren't the questions that come to mind right now.
Instead, I wonder if anything in our space program will ever capture the attention of the public again. Will we ever see another spectacle that will wow us? That will keep us glued to the news when it launches or when whatever it is happens? That will renew the enthusiasm for space exploration that the Apollo missions and the shuttles did when they first started?
I truly hope so.