Be Curious! / Science

The Shuttle Program Takes a Bow

Sunrise over the launch pad for Shuttle Atlantis

Tomorrow, Friday, July 8, 11:36 A.M. EDT,  is the scheduled date for the launch of NASA’s final space shuttle mission, flight # STS-135, Shuttle Atlantis.  I’ll be watching, and I’ll be pretty bummed out, too.

I mean seriously bummed out.  It’s worth remembering that our nation’s commitment to space launched with its own kind of rocket booster when President Kenney announced in May of 1961–fifty years ago, as long as I’ve been alive–that “We will put a man on the moon and bring him back safely within the next decade.” We didn’t know how it would happen, but the will and the resources were put into place to make it so.

And I remember how time stood still the day Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, through the Sea of Tranquility, and proclaimed “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was July 20, 1969, my family was vacationing in Cape Cod, it was an overcast day, and I remember hearing concern about getting good television reception.

But you could feel the world holding its breath–wondering if it could be done, imagining the danger–then cheering as though it was the biggest victory in any stadium in the history of the world.

But we’re now grounding our national manned space program for the foreseeable future, and I hope some girl scouts out there are paying attention, cause this is their last chance to do a particular badge task.


Yep, tasks for this badge asks girls to watch a mission launch, or learn about future launches (sigh), learn about a mission’s purpose, and follow it over time.

I’ve seen plenty of shuttle launches in my day, and almost every one takes my breath away as I get to watch a miracle of modern engineering.

The sad exception, of course, was the short-lived flight in January 1986 of Challenger. I was watching that in the living room of my new apartment in Queens, NY, really excited by the inclusion of school teacher Christa McAuliffe in the crew.  Where were you?

And where were you when you learned in late winter of 2003 that the shuttle Columbia  had disintegrated during re-entry? I just happened to have the television already tuned to CNN that day.

And have any of you gotten to see the space shuttle fly overhead at night as on its return to earth?  I saw one fly directly over Austin one warm night about 11 years ago on its way to touchdown Florida. It was as though someone too a big, fat, bright, white eraser an removed the night in a straight line from west to east. Amazing.

Atlantis launch pad at night

Most of us forget that the years between the end of the Apollo manned missions to the moon and the start of the shuttle program were really quite few; the first shuttle craft — The Enterprise — was flown in 1977, making the shuttle program 34 years old. Thirty-four years old!

Over many years, 34 shuttle missions have serviced the International Space Station, and the STS-135 mission won’t be any different. In fact, the payload includes a years’ worth of supplies for the station. You have to wonder just how the heck it’s possible to ship up a year’s worth of food all at once. I mean, that’s a lot of dehydrated food. That’s a lot of beef jerky. NASA says it’s 15,000 lbs. worth of supplies going up — and 12,000 lbs. worth of trash and items coming back on the shuttle.

So when you really think about it, these are very, very highly trained movers.

But consider the core concept of the shuttle: a reusable vehicle to get us into space. If you ask me, it’s one of the great, early, and ongoing modern examples of reduce/reuse/recycle.

NASA’s Website has dozens of videos and documentaries about the program and so many interactive features it could take a week to watch everything.  These guys post an amazing number of videos regularly, and every day features great footage from the shuttle or the space station (actually, they feature footage from the space station pretty regularly). NASA even has their own TV channel. Watch it online any time here.

But I’d like to recommend a 30-minute retrospective of the Space Shuttle. It’s a little cheesy (it really is), but you’ll certainly understand the scope the project, the worldwide partnerships required to make it possible, the courage of astronauts, and the importance of every nut and bolt. No job that supports a shuttle mission feels small. And my favorite part is hearing astronauts describe the change in their bodies in the split second between the time they can barely breathe during acceleration because of the G-force and the moment they’ve achieved velocity and become weightless. Can you imagine?

The number of humans who have gone into space adds up to a pretty exclusive club. It’d be very cool to be a member. Yes, it looks as though enough money will be able to get you a seat on some aircraft at some point, but I’m not sure I’ll ever have that kind of Richard Branson scratch.

But NASA has allowed geeks like me to come a little bit closer this year with their Face in Space program. For the last three scheduled shuttle missions, mere mortals have been able to upload their photo and that pretty picture goes right up into space on the shuttle.

And yes, I and almost 200,000 of my best geek friends uploaded our mugs for ST-133 — the final flight of Discovery. Here’s a picture of my official certificate to prove I am, in fact, a 50 year old geek whose face has been in space:

You’d better believe I get teary when I look at this. Especially now.

The manned space program has been alive and (usually) well since I’ve been walking the planet, and I find it disconcerting that I may not be around to witness next phase of manned exploration. Yes, NASA will continue to work with international partners, continue to support the International Space Station, and continue unmanned exploratory missions.

But it’s no mystery why we love space. Exploration is in our DNA. And Captain Kirk nailed it: “Space — the final frontier. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That expression not only gave us permission to split the infinitive linguistically, it reminded us of our mission to explore the infinite.

I recognize that we really don’t have unlimited resources to give to space exploration right now. We don’t even seem to have the resources to provide solid educations and basic affordable health care (different issues for another time).

Atlantis crew enjoying launch simulation exercises

But I hope we get to return to space sooner rather than later. We’re human, and we’ll need to satisfy the itch to see what’s around the next corner, over the next mountain, across that ocean, and near that star.

Again — hats off to every person who has ever helped put a man or woman into space. And, weather permitting, you can watch the launch tomorrow, Friday, July 8, at 11:3 EDT. Be sure to have that David Bowie going on in the background, too:

Major Tom – David Bowie
Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on 
Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you
This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in my tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do
Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows)
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear….
…am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.

3 thoughts on “The Shuttle Program Takes a Bow

  1. Pingback: NASA: The Great Inventor | The Big Scout Project

  2. The scientific advances that came about because of the space program are uncountable in number. Just thenumber of medical advances alone is stagering. We have small devices now that do as much as a room full of comuters used to and alot of that is because the technology, or the technology form which it was derived, was developed by the need to make things work in space. The pay off for every dollar spent on NASA is enormous and it is extremely short sited to do away with the shuttle program.

    • Jackie, what a great and persuasive reminder of the benefits of the space program, and its value to us in our daily lives. You’re also setting the stage for a future post, because believe it or not, another badge task asks scouts to research some of the ways the space program’s discoveries are helping the rest of us all the time. Of course, Velcro is the first thing that comes to mind… 🙂 But the list is so big —

      Thanks for posting — hope you’re well!

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