Celebrating the space shuttle

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Thursday, July 7, 2011

With space shuttle Atlantis scheduled to launch tomorrow on the final flight of the U.S. shuttle program (although weather forecasts for Kennedy Space Station in Florida currently don’t look too promising), I reflected on the truly remarkable feat of engineering that is this fleet of spacecraft.

Space shuttle Atlantis sits at Launch Pad 39A ready for its final mission into space, scheduled for July 8. // Photo by NASA/Terry Zaperach
The space shuttle is the Apollo program for my generation. It’s all we’ve ever known. In fact, the original trials and tribulations of the shuttle were before my time (I was only 1 year old when the Challenger tragedy occurred). But since then, the winged orbiter has become the iconic symbol of spaceflight for me and so many others.

The celebration, then, of this final mission has been a bittersweet one. NASA has done an awesome job commemorating the program through photos and videos, and I’ve enjoyed looking back at the brilliance of the orbiter — the most complex machine ever built — and the various accomplishments it’s made. In particular, I suggest you check out Space Shuttle Documentary (Narrated by William Shatner), which overviews the events leading up to a shuttle mission and takes a detailed look back at the 30-year history of the program (like the Enterprise tests, the Hubble repair missions, and John Glenn’s return to space). You should also watch Launching Our Dreams: A Shuttle Retrospective, which has great interviews with former shuttle astronauts (it’s interesting to hear them try to put in to words the initial feeling of liftoff).

Yet with the heartwarming retrospective comes a bleak reality: What will manned space exploration mean to those young members of my family (like my cousin’s son born just a few weeks ago)? Will it just be documentaries of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs? Will it be watching American astronauts hitch a ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft? I’d love to think the future holds a new program of human spaceflight that I can’t even imagine right now (like my grandfather couldn’t imagine being able to safely land a spacecraft), but NASA budgets these days look less than promising. And something about commercial spaceflight just doesn’t move me like the science and engineering purposes of the NASA programs.

But I won’t focus on those questions these next few days. Instead, I’ll watch in awe as the clock counts down to T-zero and the plume from the solid rockets launching Atlantis sends shock waves forth. And I’m sure launch number 135 will be as exciting as each one before it.

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