In 1981, aged 9, I stayed up late on a school night and saw the first Shuttle launch. Columbia blasted off with a two-man crew on a perilous adventure. Never before had humans been launched on solid fuel rockets. Never before had NASA launched a manned vehicle without an unmanned test flight. I followed the mission each day on the news. Some heat tiles fell off near the rear engines. A few days later, the Shuttle landed safely in California, and we saw it live on morning television. I remember Dr John Young, the Shuttle commander, walking around his landed vehicle, looking up at it in admiration. I read his lips - he was saying “Wow.”
On January 28th 1986, Shuttle Challenger blew up soon after launch. Seven astronauts died. My dad broke the bad news to me. I couldn’t believe it. I was shattered. It was my 14th birthday. I remember an article by Isaac Asimov that was published in the Herald. He was calling for the space program to continue.
In 1988, the Space Shuttle program began again with the launch of Discovery. I watched the launch live on TV and taped it on our clunky old VHS machine. My heart was racing. What would happen if there was another disaster? Soon after launch, and just before the ‘throttle up’ command, flame could be seen licking around the bottom of a booster rocket. I was certain something bad was going to happen. But the boosters fell away and Discovery safely completed its journey to orbit.
The Shuttle achieved amazing feats in the 1990s, such as deploying and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, and in 1998 beginning the construction of the International Space Station. And yet media coverage dropped off, and before the growth of the world wide web, Shuttle news was usually found in obscure snippets in Australian newspapers and during flippant light news segments before the weather report on Australian TV news.
The Shuttle again hit the news in February 2003 when Columbia broke up during re-entry, killing another seven astronauts. When Challenger exploded, I was 14; now I was 31 and we were expecting our first baby. We often talk about my reaction to the news. I had just emerged from the shower and I didn’t have my glasses on. I had my face up close to the TV screen, squinting as I watched the footage of Columbia streaking across the sky like meteor. Times were fragile; the Bali bombings had occured not long before, and I was certain this marked the end of human spaceflight. “That is fucken IT!” was my comment. “Oh no. That is fucken it.” You can interpret “it” as meaning “the end”.
But it was not it. By the time Shuttle missions resumed in 2005, again with Discovery, I had changed careers and we had two little boys, and I changed the nappy of our 7 month old as Discovery launched again on live TV. More change: the Shuttle was now equipped with little cameras that showed booster rocket and fuel tank separation, and the ISS began filming approach and docking. The Shuttle’s elegant backflip manoeuvre became a new highlight, made necessary by the need to check for damage to the heat shield. Through the tragedy of Columbia, the Shuttle was now given an opportunity to show itself off in orbit.
As a teacher, the remaining missions between 2006 and 2011 became major events. I showed live launches and replays via the NASA website, and invited kids to come along to special mission presentations. Technology had made it easy to engage with the program like never before; we could follow spacewalks, dockings, landings. This all ended on July 21st 2011 when the wheels of Atlantis stopped on the runway for the very last time.
For space fans there are plenty of exciting missions to follow: robotic probes on Mars; spacecraft orbiting Vesta and Mercury; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; the New Horizons probe to Pluto, launched in ‘06 and arriving in ‘15; and of course the ongoing expeditions to the ISS. But the U.S. manned spaceflight program is under a cloud, with no clear direction and no new vehicle. For all its shortcomings, the Shuttle was bold, versatile and spectacular. It put hundreds of people in orbit, usually seven at a time, and now, with only six spots on the ISS, things will become relatively quiet.
It’s true that the Shuttle was the spaceship of my generation. The Nixon administration approved its development the year I was born. It was a source of wonderment and awe for me and I’m glad I was able to share it in my teaching. Space exploration is always worth the money. I hope to watch the first person walking on Mars one day; he or she may be a child now, starry-eyed and curious.