I remember sitting at home on the floor in front of the TV, in the house where I grew up in Yorktown, VA at 7 a.m. EST on April 12, 1981. That morning, my family and I sat there in excited wonder as we watched the space shuttle Columbia, the world’s first reusable orbital spacecraft, leap off of Launch Pad A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. So many reading this post have lived with Shuttle flights taking place throughout their entire lives that it may be hard to imagine what an incredible event this was, to those experiencing it. I was just eight years old, at the time, and it was mind-blowing, to me.
The launch of the STS-1 mission took place exactly 20 years after the the Russian Vostok 1 took cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aloft on what was the first manned spaceflight. And, here 30 years after Columbia‘s maiden voyage into space, I have just watched (from the couch this time) the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, kicking off the STS-135 mission, the last mission in the Space Shuttle program.
Due to a number of factors, not the least of which is expense, once Atlantis touches down at the Kennedy Space Center twelve days from now and the STS-135 mission draws to a close, the Space Shuttle program will be no more. And, given the lack of a any real replacement program, I find this to be a sad day.
A launch vehicle — a capsule of sorts — is set to be ready to take personnel and supplies to the International Space Station in 2015, but it’s nothing so grand as the mighty Space Shuttle we’ve known these 30 years. Private low Earth orbit ventures will join the effort while NASA focuses on the farther reaching goals of the moon, asteroids, and Mars — but this will certainly take considerable time.
I feel sure that in my daughter’s lifetime, she will come to know a phase of the space program as exciting as the Shuttle program has been to me all these years, but I fear that I will not again have the opportunity to cheer on so mighty a new endeavor in my remaining years. Still, I have the highest hopes and excitement for the future of human space exploration, in whichever form it takes. And, I know that my father, who spent his 35 year aeronautical engineering career with NASA, shared that sentiment his entire life.
Here’s to the future and the heavens above.