December 13, 2019

The U.S. Space Shuttle Program; A Personal Retrospective.

As we approach what are the last flights of the United States Space Shuttle Program this year, many a media outlet will be revving up tributes, retrospectives and docu-dramas expounding on all that was the shuttle era. Rather than rehash what the shuttle has done, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the role the shuttle has played in my life.

It is truly weird to think that we’ve been sending orbiters into space longer than we’ve been doing anything since the dawn of the Space Age, and manned space flights from the Space Coast will grind to a halt this year for an indeterminate time. A generation has grown up with the shuttle, and knows nothing but. In a perfect world, we would have started in Low Earth Orbit, moved outward building stations in Geosync and at the LaGrange points, and then finally moved on the explore and settle the Moon and Mars. That’s our perception of history, as a slow set of incremental steps. The truth is more along the lines of a punctuated equilibrium, a schizophrenic space program that goes with the political whims in fits and starts…

I remember watching those last Apollo shots as a kid. My brothers and I were fans of the original Star Trek, and it thrilled me to no end that space travel was real. Of course, growing up with travel to the Moon, it seemed only natural that my generation was destined to live and work in space; I figured that I would be commuting to work on Mars or the moons of Jupiter by the time I was grown up. Maybe my kids would head for the stars… I remember calculating how old I would be in the year 2000 and that date seemed impossibly far off.

Even before Apollo ended, we knew that the shuttle would be the way; we needed a reusable vehicle that could make space travel routine. I remember seeing sketches of the old swept wing Buck Rodgers looking space planes… would I ride on those? The dream seemed a little closer when my friends and I watched the first drop flights of the shuttle Enterprise in 1977 on a black and white TV. Just think the era of time and technology that the shuttle program has spanned; Ipods, the Internet, and Twitter were unheard of back then. We watched again as astronauts Crippen & Young heralded a US return to space aboard STS-1 and Space Shuttle Columbia. I followed the nightly news (the news cycle was a 24-hour thing in those days) as the astronauts bravely rode a new system into space for the first time ever. I clipped out the news articles and remember the drama of the loss of reentry tiles on STS-1, a problem similar to the fate that doomed Columbia in 2003.

More missions were to come through my high school years. I remember discussing with my fellow space-nerd friends the deployment of Spacelab and the repair of ailing Solar Max satellite in orbit. Promises like the Hubble Space Telescope and a permanent U.S. Space Station were on the horizon; as we hacked away at our Commodore 64’s as Apple IIe’s we realized we would soon see these things come to pass in our lifetimes.

We never thought much of the danger inherent to space travel; NASA had made the complex look easy. Thus, the Challenger disaster came as a complete surprise to us… and yes, I was, like so many others that cold school day, watching from the classroom via television. It was my senior year, and for a generation, it was our first “remember where you were when…” moment. There was really nothing else like it until 9/11… a national tragedy, our first on an active space mission, with millions watching. I remember going to the gym later that wind-swept January day and over hearing someone (this was an adult) say “what are they tryin’ to do anyway, find Martians?” Strange how sentiments like that stick with you. Space once again seemed so far away. Galileo. Hubble. All those promises that the shuttle program had in store would have to wait, and folks were whispering that they may never happen. I remember going to see Star trek IV and the opening dedication to the brave crew of Challenger. Funny, here was Star Trek, yet again, reminding me that there were real heroes out there exploring the cosmos!

I joined the military in 1986, and the shuttle once again took to space in 1988. Space flight almost became routine, a back page story that few noticed. But I knew that the shuttle was revolutionizing the field of astronomy in a very fundamental way. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory all got their start in space from the shuttle’s cargo bay. Just think, when I was a kid, the best pictures of planets like Jupiter were grainy washed out pics taken by ground-based telescopes. These orbiting observatories ushered in a whole new Golden Age of astronomy and minted a new batch of PhDs. The CCD detectors on Hubble pushed back the technology which eventually trickled down to the open market; thank Hubble and the shuttle for that camera chip in your IPhone or DSLR. I even remember explaining to my friends how we would fix Hubble when she was initially shown to be flawed, that thanks to the shuttle, she could be serviced. It’s a shame that the only shuttle news stories that seem to bleed through to the public consciousness are the bad ones. Lots of victories have occurred in human spaceflight; as mentioned, we see the universe as vastly different today than we did in the pre-shuttle era. Are we that conditioned by things like Jerry Springer to only want to hear the worst of things? I would counter that there’s a vast segment of the population out there that the mass media isn’t servicing, that love science and the space program and wants to know about it.

I remember following that first shuttle repair mission to Hubble via C-Span in 1993. That was how you tracked things in their entirety before the Internet and NASA TV. I always thought one of the most dramatic moments of the mission was when astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton stood attached to the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm, holding a gigantic solar panel and waiting for sunrise to discard it into space. Now how cool would that be to stand there in perfect silence and darkness, as if awaiting creation itself? The shuttle program brought us those little moments.

As missions to Mir and construction of the International Space Station got underway, the shuttle and its creations became familiar friends in the night sky. The Internet was now coming of age, and sites like Heavens-Above allowed us to track these objects from anywhere in the world. Strange to think I’ve been using Heavens-Above for over 10 years now; it’s still one of my faves. I still always print out a list of visible passes and watch for the shuttle and ISS if possible during observing runs. Often, when I did public outreach astronomy at the Flandrau science center in Tucson, people were more fascinated to step outside the dome and see the space shuttle pass overhead with their own eyes than anything I could show them with the telescope. It was on one of these passes over the TIMPA site west of Tucson that I made note of the orbiter Columbia passing over our heads… little did I know that it was the last time I would see her in orbit.

It was a sickening feeling that Saturday morning, as the shuttle went into its routine communications blackout on re-entry and the time stretched by silently. As the day passed and the shaky video of the breakup over the mid-US replayed over and over on the networks, we knew that the US Space Program had reached another terrible watershed moment. Missions were to be curtailed to finishing the ISS only, and the remaining three orbiters were to cease operations within the decade. Again, the optimism of the space program of my youth seemed on a spiral towards decay.

But the United States and the shuttle rose again, and I managed to catch her in orbit on one occasion from Saint Froid Lake in Northern Maine shortly after undocking from the ISS. By 2007, NASA TV and the Internet had finally come of age as well as rural, high speed wireless, and I could be a geek science junkie vicariously in the backwoods of Maine in a way that I scarcely could have imagined as a kid. Upon moving to Florida, shuttle launches are now something I can see out my eastward window, as the launches light up the sky from about 100 miles away. Some of the most dramatic were the pre-dawn launch of STS-131, and I was fortunate enough to catch the final dramatic repair mission STS-125 launch of shuttle Atlantis close-up as well as attend the STS-132 NASAtweetup in 2010 for the launch once again of Atlantis.

As the shuttle program approaches its end, I have mixed feelings about its conclusion. STS-134 will see the final flight of shuttle orbiter Endeavour, and will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS, and there may be a flight of Atlantis one last time this summer. We always knew that spaceflight would progress past low Earth orbit, but it was also always taken for granted that once we had the know how to reach LEO we would maintain the capability. Did we stop doing trans-Atlantic flights once Lindbergh showed us how? It’s a bit of a scary time as there’s no firm plan in place, and after this year, no new manned space missions from US soil will occur. At the end of the day, most fans of space travel I know are happy to be doing anything, just give us a mission. What we really fear is a great turning away, as we become a risk adverse society that’s more concerned with materialistic consumption and the bottom line rather than knowledge and exploring. It would be sad in a way to go into a museum as the three remaining orbiters are retired, only to hear the familiar “in those days there were heroes,” speech…what about today? Sure, lets feed our kids and end poverty, but science and the space program will play no small part in that solution. To know, to explore, that’s what we pursue more pragmatic concerns for. If we turn away as we did after Apollo, those perishable skills are gone… let’s build upon a robust space program, and not let the missions and lessons of the Space Shuttle vanish into the past!

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  1. [...] were all supposed to commute via jetpack and vacation on the moons of Mars by 2013. The end of the space shuttle program brought this disparity back home to many. There’s only so many slots left to get up to the [...]

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