Yesterday, a NASA Space Shuttle took to the skies for the last time in history. The Shuttle program came to be during the 70s, as I was growing up. Apollo missions to the moon had ended earlier that decade, and we were sending missions to Skylab, but the Shuttle held the promise of regular space exploration for decades. It didn’t look like a spaceship or a capsule – it looked like an airplane – an everyday thing.
I vividly recall watching the first Shuttle mission takeoff, and by 1986 they were so routine that our high school didn’t wheel out the TVs to watch the tragic Challenger explosion until after it had happened.
But with all of this, it’s downright disappointing that the Shuttles have been mothballed, and NASA has nothing new in the pipeline to replace them. Certainly the technology to create a reusable spacecraft has improved since the mid-70s, and certainly we oughtn’t rely on the Russian space program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and the private carriers are suborbital, not equipped for complex missions.
Yesterday, the Shuttle Discovery was ferried aboard a 747 from Cape Canaveral to Dulles Airport in Virginia. Adjacent to Dulles is the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum annex hangar, which houses all manner of historic aircraft from the time of the Wright Brothers to Concorde. It’s massive, majestic, and pure eye candy for a fan of airplanes. Discovery will replace a replica Shuttle that’s been there since the facility opened.
Before landing in Virginia, the Shuttle flew by Reagan Airport and along the National Mall. People poured out of their offices and shops to watch the spectacle, and applauded. It was a bittersweet event.
We should have something new to applaud. I echo the sentiment expressed last night by comedian Lewis Black.