STS-135: The End of an Era

On Friday, July 8, 2011 at 11:29 AM EDT, I watched something that I will never see again.

With thousands looking on from vantage points near Cape Canaveral millions more streaming online, the space shuttle Atlantis blasted into space on its final mission--the 135th and last mission for the space shuttle program.

As Atlantis soared into the Florida sky, my mind traveled back to April 12, 1981 where, 30 years ago, I stared raptly at the television in my parents' living room and watched as the Columbia kicked off the era of reusable space vehicles. I was almost giddy with the excitement of that moment. This was the first mission in a brand new phase of America's manned space program, one that I was watching unfold before my very eyes.

As a kid born in the mid-1960s, the space program was in high gear by the time I entered the world. The Gemini Program was in full-swing at that point, and Ed White became the first American to perform a spacewalk when I was only three months old. I was two when tragedy struck and Ed White (along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee) perished in the first major tragedy to strike the space program, the Apollo 1 fire. I actually first became aware of what NASA was up to a couple of years later. I still remember angrily stomping around the house complaining that whatever it was I wanted to watch on TV wasn't on because of the "stupid Moon." (Hey...I was four. How could I know how significant Apollo 11 was?)

By the time I actually became actively interested in the space program, an astonishing number of people in the country had already pretty much forgotten about it. What was discussed in the movie Apollo 13 regarding TV coverage was quite accurate. In July 1969, everyone in the country watched as people from our world stepped out of a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. By April 1970, they couldn't be bothered to have their TV shows preempted just to see someone else do it.

The first mission I followed closely was after Apollo's heyday was years in the past, and our days of walking on the Moon were over. The Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission was politically historic, and it paved the way for the multi-national missions of today. But it was also a sign that we were pumping the brakes a bit. We walked on the Moon six times, but now our missions were confined to Earth orbit.

That didn't diminish my enthusiasm for the shuttle program. Five days after the first launch, my super-cool astronomy teacher gave me a pass out of my Social Studies class so I could watch the landing on the TV in the school planetarium. (My Social Studies teacher got wind of what I was doing, and passes out of class to watch future launches and landings were denied--despite my argument that this was, indeed, history related.)

I followed the shuttle program as best I could over the years. Like Apollo before it, the space shuttle dropped out of the thoughts of the apathetic public fairly quickly. After a few missions, the launches and landings weren't televised anymore (no NASA web site to watch launches on back then). Only after the Challenger and Columbia tragedies did coverage pick up for a while (as it did, briefly, after Apollo 13's near miss in the 70s).

Then, of course, it came to the end. And everyone's interested again. For a day or two.

As I think about the last couple of weeks of the space shuttle, I'm a little depressed. All the launches and landings I watched. The elation at seeing the first pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope after it was repaired by a shuttle crew. The agony of watching first Challenger and then Columbia break up in the atmosphere. The thrill of looking up and actually seeing, with the naked eye, the dots of light that were the shuttle and the International Space Station passing over my house. All of that comes to an end when, at 7:06 AM EDT on July 20, 2011 (just shy of 42 years to the day from the splashdown of Apollo 11), the Atlantis touches down for the last time at the Kennedy Space Center.

I've always taken great pride in our space program. To borrow a phrase from my favorite TV show, NASA's astronauts boldly went where no one had gone before. They did using technology conceived by our best and brightest scientists, and they showed a level of courage that very few can claim to match. (You have to be one brave SOB to strap yourself onto a 30-story fuel tank with engines and leave your home planet 290,000 miles behind you.)

But now, for the most part the manned portion of our space program is drawing to a close. Plans for a new manned vehicle that we can use for ISS missions are in the works but, in a time when Social Security is considered frivolous spending, what chance does a new spacecraft have of actually being built? Until we do build something new, our space explorers are forced to hitch a ride with the Russians--the very folks we worked so hard to stay one step ahead of during the space race. A race we won.

I wish the crew of STS-135 a safe and successful mission and a safe landing. But I do so with a heavy heart. Because, when Atlantis comes home and is towed off to retirement, what might well be the last great era of American manned space exploration is retired with her.

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