I will admit it now. I am a huge fan of NASA and anything related to Space, Space Travel and the Universe. There is no greater fountain of pure awesome than our universe and our exploration of it. There is drama, beauty, danger, competition, cooperation, accomplishment and from time to time crushing defeat. It seems that when our forays into the universe get mundane the universe strikes back to bring our thoughts into tight focus. Apollo 1, Apollo 13, Challenger, Columbia, all of those disasters, other than Apollo 1 came at a time when we started to ignore the human challenge of space flight. Apollo 13 showed us the worst that could happen with our technology and the best of human ingenuity and ability to problem solve and survive.
I was born too late to experience the golden age of Apollo and the race to the moon. By the time I was able to understand space travel the great competition between two superpowers had changed to an unsteady truce. Former competitors now train and fly each other’s hardware to a destination with many flags, many owners. The International Space Station or ISS is almost complete. I grew up with a goal of completing an impossible task in the most hostile environment imaginable.
I missed Apollo, but on April 12th 1981, 20 years after Yuri Gagarin was the first human to pierce the atmosphere of Earth, Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. A complex machine built on 1970’s technology was the first re-usable space vehicle. It was designed to lift personnel and material to a low Earth orbit station. NASA had hoped that a shuttle could complete a flight schedule of 12 flights per year, at low cost and high reliability. Unfortunately costs and time associated with checkout and refit of the orbiters were much greater than anticipated. The shuttle is a truck and unfortunately during the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s the truck had no destination. It was used as a manned laboratory but it could not compete with single use launch systems for satellites and other payloads.
On Dec 4th 1998 Endeavour lifted off with the Unity Node, the second piece of the International Space Station. The crew was tasked with mating it with the Zarya Control Module that was placed in orbit by the Russians earlier in Nov. In March of 2001 Discovery resupplied the station with cargo, an Italian built logistics module and the expedition 2 crew. Discovery also returned home with the Expedition 1 crew. The space shuttle finally had a destination and it could serve its purpose.
Now with the ISS nearly complete, there is no longer any need for a space truck. The shuttles are being retired one by one. Yesterday Endeavour flew its last mission and there is only one more planned shuttle launch in early July. The shuttle era will come to a close. The vehicles will be decommissioned and distributed to museums around the country.
I have always wanted to witness a launch in person. I always thought that there would be time. Shuttles have been launched since 1981. Russians will not send supplies and personnel to the station while the US Government figures out our next moves in manned space flight. There is great promise in private commercial launch vehicles, Space X has already had 2 successful launches of a vehicle that could be used to ferry crew. There has yet to be a manned test of the Falcon 9. The Falcon launch stack combined with the Dragon, a reusable crew module, appears to be the future. There are on again off again plans to return to the moon and I am all for returning with more than a flags and footprints mission.