Space Shuttle flies for the very last time

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NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with space shuttle Endeavour atop approaches the flight line area of Edwards Air Force Base from which it had taken off minutes before to begin its Tour of California. The tour featured low-level flyovers of a host of landmarks in a number of cities around the state before landing in Los Angeles, where it will become the central focus of the California Science Center’s space exhibit.
September 21, 2012
NASA / Jim Ross

It’s truly over.

The Space Shuttle and I grew up together. I remember first learning about it around 1971 in Estes Model Rocket News. In 1976, I had a science project for the state science fair with the title of Our Future in Space. The Space Shuttle figured prominently in that future and in my project. I did another project about the space shuttle in 1977 and in 1980 I designed a space station that was based on expended External Tanks and was to be serviced by the Space Shuttle. That project did quite well in the state science fair at the high school level, and I am sure that its success had much to do with me being accepted at MIT. Columbia flew on STS-1 during my senior year in high school. At MIT during those years, everybody in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics was Space Shuttle-crazy, and it was a frequent source of problems to solve for our assignments. I had friends who worked on the Shuttle program as engineers and flight controllers, and a few who flew as astronauts on it.

When I was collecting information for my science project back in 1976, I wrote each of the NASA centers and asked them for information. A few weeks later, thick packets arrived. One contained NASA SP-407 Space Shuttle, which I retain to this day. It was a well-illustrated and detailed description of the Space Shuttle, which would not fly for five more years but whose design was well-defined by then. According to the publication, the Space Shuttle program objective was to establish a national space transportation capability that will:

  • Substantially reduce the cost of space operations.
  • Provide a capability designed to support a wide range of scientific applications, defense, commercial, and international uses.

Nearly forty years later, we can state with confidence that the Space Shuttle program was a failure, in that it did not meet its objective. But what a magnificent failure it was. I had the opportunity to see the launch of STS-120 and numerous landings at Edwards AFB, and it is things like that that inspire us. Human space flight is one of the signature achievements of the United States, and I do not believe that it is coincidental that the end of the Space Shuttle program without a ready replacement coincides with a general senses that the United States is in decline.

Successful or not, the Space Shuttle was the basis of American human spaceflight for a generation, and for those of us from that generation, it will always be remembered.

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