30 years. 135 missions. No more. Early Thursday morning, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed on the runway at Cape Canaveral, Florida, marking the end of the shuttle program. I know the event was televised, but it seems like it didn't get the coverage or attention it deserved. And even though I'm writing about it, I didn't watch, and wasn't really aware of the landing time.
I am writing about it, though, because the Space Shuttle program and era represented a big part of my life. The shuttle orbiters were built at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, not much more than a mile from the house I grew up in. The first shuttle, Enterprise, never made it to space, but it was the one that was built to practice landings, flying over the Antelope Valley, piggybacked on top of a specially-modified Boeing 747. My dad was alive then, and he would make it a point to watch as many of the test flights with me as possible. He also got to see the first Shuttle launch, but died about about a month before the second.
The other orbiters—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour—were all built in Palmdale, and rolled to Edwards Air Force Base before their maiden voyages from Florida. Thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of people would go out in the desert to watch the landings. I got to witness one of them.
I think for just about everyone, the Challenger explosion was a “I remember where I was” moment. For me, I was in class at Chico State, and when our class ended, and the next group was filing in, there were whispers about it. I ran back to the TV lounge in the dorm, and couldn't believe what I was seeing.
If you are slightly older than I am, the American space program represented everything that technology and knowhow had to offer (Remember Apollo 13?). After the Challenger disaster, and it was revealed that it was too cold to launch on that January day in 1986 (and a lot of people knew it), NASA's credibility was destroyed. The Columbia, disintegrating during re-entry and killing all seven on board in 2003, probably should have been the end of the shuttle program right there, or at least NASA as an organization.
In Palmdale and Lancaster, the streets that were used to roll the shuttle to Edwards are now named Challenger Way and Columbia Way, and in both cities, there are lots of shuttle artifacts and murals.
You can blame the ending of the shuttle program on the George W. Bush administration of course, but to be fair, there was supposed to be a replacement program in place. Bush wanted to return to the moon by 2020, but that program was canceled. Commercial space flight may be next, with NASA still in the mix, but right now, the only way to get into space, is to pay the Russians, at a cost of about 63 million dollars a ride. Yikes.
So to the over 300 astronauts and crew who flew shuttle missions, and to those on the ground who made them possible, thanks for a memorable 30 years. I don't know if I should say “Live long and prosper”, or “To infinity, and beyond!”.