Reflections on the space shuttle from Benjamin Palmer

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, July 21, 2011

This spring, Astronomy ran its second annual Youth Essay Contest, sponsoring a trip to the Northeast Astronomy Forum in Suffern, New York, for the winner. I was delighted to meet the winner, Benjamin Palmer of Queensbury, New York, an enthusiastic astronomy buff who enjoys using his telescope for observing and astroimaging, and whose astronomical interests are wide-ranging.

Photo credit: Chris Cook
Today the United States space shuttle program came to an end with Atlantis’ landing. Benjamin sent along an excellent essay on the meaning of the program and its legacy, and I am sharing it with you today as a guest blog. Enjoy!


To Infinity and Beyond …
Reflecting on the space shuttle and future implications of its legacy

“On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream …”
(NASA Mission Control, Houston, 7/8/11)

It’s T –30 minutes and counting. While observing the launch of space shuttle Atlantis (STS-135), an enthralling, yet melancholy feeling permeates my soul. The profound message sinks in: It’s the final mission. This amazing spacecraft ignited imagination, transcended tragedy, and accelerated achievement, becoming one of the most iconic symbols in human spaceflight. As I solemnly watch live telemetry reports from Houston, I’m reminded of the potent impact the space shuttle has had on my life.

The space shuttle holds a special place in my heart. Growing up, it represented the pinnacle of modern science — a majestic, rocket-powered voyager into the unknown. Through its wonderment, the shuttle always encouraged me to pursue my dreams to their fullest extent.

On October 11, 2000, days before my sixth birthday, I witnessed my first flight, STS-92, of the space shuttle Discovery. At age 10, while attending the Eileen Collins Aviation Camp in Elmira, New York, my fellow campers and I held our collective breath as we watched liftoff of STS-114, the “Return to Flight” mission. As an enthusiastic young scientist, it was a stirring moment in more ways than one. All eyes were on Col. Eileen Collins, an Elmira native and first female pilot and commander of a shuttle mission. She had the immense responsibility of navigating a flawless flight to the International Space Station (ISS), an urgent outcome for NASA to regain public credibility following the Columbia disaster.

The space shuttle’s journey has been most complex. Congress has weighed its costs and questioned its scientific relevance. Engineers have scrutinized its safety. Countless Americans have debated its importance on the national scale. Yet, despite the critics, the shuttle evolved into something more sacred than a scientific vehicle; it came to embody the essence of our space agency, and in truth, our nation.

Most of us have a shuttle story to tell. We rode its wings as it turned the Hubble Space Telescope into the unblinking eye of the cosmos. We partook in global harmony with every ISS module it delivered. We moved beyond visible wavelengths with the launch of Chandra. Above all, we watched individuals, who, decades before, would never have imagined taking flight make their dreams reality. The space shuttle was a true symbol of international cohesion, with the first American female, first African-American, and first Arab spreading their wings within its cockpit. Be it breaking the boundaries of science or those of gender, race, and ethnicity, the shuttle was always an omnipresent figure.

Human spaceflight was perfected by the shuttle’s presence and will be redefined in its absence. Despite the risks and tragedies, the space shuttle was undoubtedly a firm catalyst for our sojourns into space, demonstrating the benefits to be gained from hands-on investigation.

Although a manned mission to Mars has been brought to the table, it seems a travesty to have no determined goals for the immediate future. There are those who argue that unmanned probes dictate the future of spaceflight, that modern exploration can be satisfied through artificial senses alone. However, humans are, and have always been, an innately curious species, and that desire to understand the universe around us has made astronomy the dynamic field it is today. With NASA planning to coordinate future spaceflights with private corporations, the future looks mixed for manned spacecraft. The space shuttle set a unique precedent in human spaceflight during its lifetime; let us hope future projects continue the noble legacy.

Much has changed since that distant day when Columbia first took to the heavens, yet one underlying truth prevails. The space shuttle’s heritage will be forever treasured in the hearts and minds of countless individuals around the globe.

On July 21, 2011, 42 years and a day since mankind first set foot on the Moon, we welcome Atlantis home. STS-135 marks an important milestone, not just to science, but also to humanity.

It was a spacecraft that truly had a life of its own.

Tags: STS-135
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