Wednesday, July 6, 2011

T+50: The Last Shuttle

On the early morning of Sunday, April 12, 1981, I watched with eager anticipation as the countdown for the first space shuttle launch drew to a close. As Columbia's engines lit up and it finally, amazingly, lifted off the launch pad, I exclaimed, with a dorky bit of 10-year-old boy enthusiasm, "America, you've done it!"

And why not? After the national disillusionment and malaise of the 70s--Watergate, Vietnam, gas lines, hostages in Iran--the space shuttle was one of the things that began to lift American spirits in the brave new decade of the 1980s. To a child in the 70s, the space shuttle had been the shining promise of the future of space flight, the sleek, winged spaceship that would take us straight to 2001, and now it had finally become a reality.

A 1970s vision of the space shuttle.
After my exclamation, I ran outside of our Florida trailer and looked eastward, where I saw the white column of Columbia's exhaust rising into the bright morning sky.

22 years later, on a far different morning, I awoke to the alarming news that the space shuttle was "breaking up". The burning fragments of Columbia fell down the blue sky throughout the morning on TV, seeming never to reach the earth, like its ill-fated crew.

And now, 30 years since the first shuttle, NASA prepares to launch the 135th and last shuttle. For those with any interest in humanity's journey into space, it is a time for reflection. How do we evaluate the space shuttle program? Was it a success? A failure? Or some mixture of both? How will its place in history be regarded by future historians? Did it truly progress mankind's venture beyond the earth, or did it largely just tread water, unnecessarily keeping us in low earth orbit for decades after the moon landings?

It is true that the space shuttle did not deliver on much of its promise. It did not make space flight routine, nor particularly economical. And even though shuttle missions never actually became routine, the romance wore off after awhile and the shuttle began to seem as everyday and prosaic as an airliner rather than exciting and futuristic. People stopped paying attention, the media stopped broadcasting launches and landings or even mentioning it on the nightly news. Only when disaster struck, in 1986 with the Challenger explosion and in 2003 with the disintegration of Columbia, did most people remember that the space shuttle even existed. Even so, few seemed to understand or care about what the space shuttle did.

So what did the space shuttle do? In the 1980s, pre-Challenger, it launched a number of commercial satellites--a goal which came to be seen as not quite worthy of risking human lives post-Challenger--and it also carried a number of science missions, including Spacelab. A Buck Rogers-type rocket pack was tested in space. There were a few top secret military missions. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched, then repaired, and gave us the most awe-inspiring views of the universe we had ever seen. Space probes were launched across the solar system. In the post-Cold War 1990s, the shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. Perhaps most importantly of all in the long-term history of space exploration, the International Space Station was constructed... and, if not quite as stylishly and elegantly as what Stanley Kubrick envisioned, the space shuttle did ferry crews back and forth to this large orbiting space station, just in time for the actual year 2001.

The space shuttle did not deliver either on the promise of opening up space flight to the masses, but it did open it up to a wider variety of people. Not only did it carry America's first female and non-white astronauts--a fact due more to changing social attitudes than to the technology--but it also enabled non-astronauts to journey into space: a schoolteacher (who tragically did not make it), sitting members of Congress, and even aging Mercury astronauts (well, one, anyway).

Speaking of the Mercury program, this first U.S. manned space flight program, the one that put the first American in orbit, was followed a few years later by Project Apollo, which put the first man on the moon. In between the exciting beginning and the majestic culmination of the race to the moon, there was Project Gemini. Gemini did not go anywhere new. It went into near-earth orbit just as Mercury had done. But it tested many new techniques and technologies that were essential to the success of the moon landings, including orbital rendezvous and docking and extravehicular activities (that would be "spacewalks" for all you laymen). In other words, Gemini served as a bridge. The middle is usually not the most exciting part of the journey, but it's hard to get to the destination without passing through it.

In a larger context, the early space program leading up to the moon landings was the exciting beginning of the journey, and our next ventures into space--back to the moon, on to Mars--will represent a new pinnacle of human space exploration.

In between, there was the space shuttle. With the vastly increased toolbox that the shuttle program developed, humanity is now more prepared to extend its reach across the solar system. Like Gemini, the shuttle itself did not go there, but it made the next giant step much more possible.

Back in the shuttle's halcyon days of the early 1980s, I read a short story by Isaac Asimov called "The Last Shuttle". As the story progressed, various surprising clues were dropped which made it evident that the launch of the titular craft was taking place further and further into the future than the reader might originally have imagined. Finally, at the end, it is revealed that "the last shuttle" is lifting the last human beings who remain on earth into space, the rest of humanity having already moved off-world. Once the last shuttle roars off into the blue sky, earth is left abandoned--a peaceful, humanless paradise.

I remember that story now, on the eve of the real-life last shuttle. But the story is enough to make me wonder if this is really the last shuttle after all. I doubt that humanity will ever actually move en masse off the earth, doubt even more that it would be in any way desirable to do so, but perhaps the larger point conveyed by the story was that the shuttle was the beginning of some distant, as yet unforeseeable end. The shock of the story is that this--the first launch of the space shuttle in 1981, for which occasion the story was written--might culminate in something as ultimate as that.

It is surely too grandiose to imagine that the space shuttle will be seen historically as the beginning of the end of humanity's residence on planet Earth. Space shuttle romanticism, even of the less grandiose type, is as quaint now as being amazed by PCs and Atari video games. So we will not think of the space shuttle as having been the beginning of the end.

When the last shuttle rises from the launch pad this Friday, it will only be the end of the beginning.

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