Atlantis is on her way to the International Space Station. And the space shuttle program comes to an end with this mission.
I was in second grade at Cedar Hill Elementary school when the Columbia made it’s first launch on April 12, 1981. I remember our class went to another classroom, across the library, and in that classroom was a television that was tuned to some news station. I think we must have watched a rerun of the launch, since the actual launch took place at 7am and we were not at school that early. I don’t remember much about watching the launch itself. My interest in astronomy had been growing since I discovered it in first grade, and I imagine I must have been pretty excited to see the shuttle launch, but I didn’t understand the significance back then, as I do today.
I didn’t see the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. I was in eight grade and the launch coincided with some kind of break between classes. But I remember starting to hear the other kids talk about the shuttle blowing up. Pretty soon we were all talking about it, rumors were flying. I was predicting that maybe they could have made it safely to orbit, but of course, that was not the case. I had a science class later that day, and I remember going into the classroom to find our teacher with tears in her eyes, a radio providing continuous bulletins on the tragic events of the day.
In 1998, I decided that I really wanted to be an astronaut and fly on the shuttle. It was silly of me to think this, but even silly thoughts can lead to some positive actions. It was because of this, in part, that I went out and learned to fly, and eventually got my pilot’s license. I also felt as if I devoured every book on the Apollo space program ever written. And of course, there was HBO’s From the Earth To The Moon to help spur along the inspiration. During this time, I would spent all day at work with the shuttle and mission control communications playing in the background. I would listen to each launch with what can only be described of as nervous thrill. And the absolute high point for me came on October 2, 1998 when John Glenn went up in Discovery as part of STS-95. I remember listening to that launch, and it must have been as exciting for me as the moon landing was for my parents.
I recall waking up on February 1, 2003 and going into my home office to check email and news. That’s when I discovered that the Columbia and it’s crew had been lost on reentry. I think I shrieked out loud, I was horrified and I did nothing else that day but watch the news for updates. I read every bit of news on the subject in the Washington Post for the next week.
I missed the launch this morning. I was stuck in meetings. I am sad to see the era of the space shuttle come to an end, but it doesn’t mean that the age of human spaceflight is ending. We are entering a new chapter now. I am a science fiction writer, and I write about spaceships and exploring the solar system, the galaxy and the universe. But what I write is all made up. I wonder what kind of achievements we will have made in human space exploration by the time the Little Man is in first grad… eight grade… when he twenty-six, and by the time he is thirty-one. The moon again? An asteroid? Mars? There’s nothing to do but wait and see.
And hope and dream.
Actually, I think that the end of the space shuttles, although the end of an era, mark the beginning of a much more dynamic space age. With numerous new companies working in competition it will be more likely than ever that many people will make it into space in our lifetimes, even those who won’t have to make it their career.