Yesterday, Roberto and I ended our writing workshop just in time to watch the liftoff of the shuttle Atlantis via an online stream from NASA TV, which did not exist as an Internet portal in 1981. So much has changed!
The shuttle program has been an exciting era of American innovation. Reusable space vehicles were the stuff of science fiction until Columbia’s second flight. Countless inventions designed to solve technical problems in space travel have become part of our everyday lives. We suffered two national tragedies when things did not go as they should have for the crews of Challenger and Columbia. Many of us still remember the shock of losing these heroes, but our intrepid engineers doggedly solved the problems and carried on in their memory.
As Americans, we often celebrate individual triumphs, but ultimately we know it’s all about the team. Philip Scott Anderson offers a glimpse through photographs of the many technicians who made this program possible. They never get the attention our heroic and glamorous astronauts receive but their work makes space flight possible. Space.com has assembled a photo gallery of Atlantis being built back in 1982.
Unfortunately, thousands of jobs are disappearing with the end of the shuttle program. There may be a local transition to commercial space travel or other exciting endeavors eventually, but it’s tough going at the moment for many families. Purdue University has jumped into the Space Coast vacuum with ‘strategic doing’ consultations to help the community take its next steps towards the future. A few months ago, Sam Knight wrote a piece about the impact of the shuttle program and its closing on Brevard County, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.
“After almost three decades, the retirement of the three surviving shuttles—Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour—is also the retirement of a set of American certainties. No one knows what is coming next.”
NASA has plans for visiting asteroids and Mars within the next decade or so. In the meantime private companies will be flying astronauts and supplies into space. We might even see space tourism emerge as a growth industry instead of a fringe pursuit. For all those bemoaning the outsourcing of manned space travel, keep in mind that our now beloved shuttles faced an uphill battle just to exist. In Beam Me Out of this Deathtrap, Scotty: 5…4…3…2…1 Goodbye, Columbia, Gregg Easterbrook covered the technical challenges contentious beginnings of the program back in 1980, a year before the first liftoff.
“The only way to find out about something as big and balky as Columbia, [former astronaut Richard] Cooper says, is to launch the thing and see what happens.”
American optimism powered the space program as much as the brains and sweat of countless engineers, scientists and technicians. There is much hand wringing about what comes next in our journey, but Darryl C. Owens observes that the shuttle has changed us here at home by opening its doors to astronauts who also happened to be minorities and women.
“Ultimately, history may judge the space shuttle program on the number of miles or days logged in space. However, the program’s most transformative legacy lies in the number of youngsters who were encouraged to shoot for the stars after watching someone like them blast into space.”
I could get lost in this topic all day, but it’s too gorgeous out. To read more about the space shuttle and its impact, check out the official NASA archives. For more about the future of spaceflight, read Mike Wall’s posting from Cape Canaveral about NASA’s plans.