The shuttle Atlantis lifted off for the final time today heralding the final phase of an era of manned US space flight that has spanned my lifetime so far. I was born while the Gemini program was still going on but my first really solid memory of space travel was the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1974. The era of sending Americans into space then took a pause while the Shuttles were prepared.
I was also a tech nerd and I can recall the images of the Enterprise lifting off from the back of a 747 and gliding back to earth and then watching Challenger blast off into space. By the time Challenger blew up, I was in college but actually working a co-op term at GM in St Catherines. I remember working in the office when someone came in and said that the shuttle had exploded and many of us engineers crowded into a conference room to watch the TV and find out what had happened in those pre-web, pre-Twitter days.
Eventually the shuttle program got back on track but for reasons having to do with too many cooks and only one vat of broth, it never did meet the expectations set for it. While it was clearly a triumph of engineering brute force that this kludged up system ever worked at all, the shuttle system never had any of the optimized design elegance that could have made a true success story. The amount of time and work required to turn around a shuttle and get it ready for flight again was simply insane for what was supposed to be a "space-plane"
Following the 2003 Columbia disintegration, the program probably should have been retired but with the ISS only partly finished, the shuttle was needed to get the job done. Now that the ISS is essentially complete, the orbiters will finally be laid to rest at various museums.
I only visited the Kennedy Space Center once, last November for the aborted STS-133 mission of Discovery and thus never got to see a lift off live. Fortunately I did get a tour of the orbiter preparation facility and the insanely huge vehicle assembly building where the shuttles and the Apollo craft before them came together.
While I remain a lover of science and technology, I agree that at this point in time we need to scale back manned space flight. The technology is simply not there for us to safely and affordably send humans beyond the moon and benefits of doing so remain dubious. Besides there is still far too much we don't yet understand about ourselves and the pale blue dot that we live on. We need to explore and understand our own oceans before we head to Mars and beyond. I'm glad we did what we did in space and continue to do on the ISS, but it's time for a new direction wherever that may lead us.
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