Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an era; Space Shuttle

This evening, NASA launched the STS-135, the last Space Shuttle mission in its 30-year Space Shuttle program. The first launch was in 1981 and throughout my entire conscious life, the Space Shuttle was, simply, there.

It was the best-available way for humanity to reach space, but even more than that, the shuttle represented manned space-flight. It spoke to the imagination and ambition.

I've always been a big science-fiction fan. From an early age on (cheering for the Colonies with my dad every time they escaped the Cylon menace in the original Battlestar series, enjoying Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Buck Rogers, Star Trek and imagining myself to be a new Jedi Knight) space and our ascent in it was a given, not a question. To me, it simply was where the future lay.

As a symbol, Shuttle was a science-fiction geek's tentative link to these future worlds we could only read, watch movies, or fantasize about. The Shuttle was our "window" through which we could see and imagine, it was the tiniest of glimpse of what it would be to launch a "USS Enterprise", a "Discovery One" or a "Heart of Gold", someday, sometime in the future. Shuttle made StartTrek "real".

Not bad for what was, essentially, a rocket-powered, overpriced, under-capacity, but manned, freighter.

I was 9 years old when the Challenger disaster happened. And I remember how the "regular programming" on tv was interrupted by a single, solemn, message, maybe two lines of text, telling us about the event that had just transpired half a globe away. This was something that should not, could not, have happened. It was the first time (though obviously not the last time) in my life, that I can remember, that news really and truly left me shaken. Somehow this event had... damaged... my certainty in the future.

But the two catastrophic accidents are far eclipsed by Shuttle's achievements. Each facilitating new leaps in science and growth of humanity's "awareness"; Spacelab, Magellan, Galileo, Hubble, supplying Mir, building ISS, the list goes on and on...

With Shuttle's... departure... as with Concorde, I do feel as if we say goodbye to an achievement, without a "next, better, thing" to replace it. Spaceflight costs a lot of money and has a lot of risks, but mankind never got anywhere by only doing the sensible thing. I can confidently say that I was inspired by the vision of Shuttle, long before I could grasp its science and engineering. I can only hope that our younger generations may find something as equally inspiring.

The final mission is on its way now and I hope the crew has as safe and spectacularly successful a mission and return as they had a launch.

Thank you Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Endeavor, Enterprise.