To Boldly Go…

As a four year old child in April 1981 I can clearly remember the first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It’s hardly surprising, the launch was a Massive News Event. This was a new dawn for space travel, for the first time astronauts would return to Earth, not via an unceremonious parachuted drop into the ocean squashed into something that resembles the symbol for a loudspeaker, but by landing on a runway. In something that looked like a proper spaceship.
Up until this point there had been a gulf between science fiction and science fact. In science fiction it would be inconceivable to have a craft which essentially fell completely to pieces just to get into the sky and then was only used once. No, we wanted X-Wings and Corellian Corvettes, capable of leaving planets as simply as Spitfire from a grassy field. We wanted the USS Enterprise and the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, capable of re-entering the atmosphere without so much as breaking a sweat. And the Space Shuttle was a step in the right direction.
One of my favourite toys at the time was a low loading articulated truck which carried on its back a terribly out of scale Space Shuttle (very like this modern version). I realised this but didn’t care about scale, only that I had my own Space Shuttle to look at and tow about and do whatever else it is small boys to with toy cars (I think I may also have attempted to ‘ramp’ the whole assembly, a practice which involved finding a suitable slope or drop off and ‘zooming’ a toy vehicle as fast as one could toward it. The idea was that the toy would fly through the air like the General Lee before executing a perfect landing and possibly coming to a halt with a bootleg turn). I often wonder where that truck went, I must check my parent’s loft next time I’m home.
Even at that tender age I can remember thinking that if we could go from the Wright Brothers to this in less than eighty years it would only a be a few more short years before those oft promised Moon bases became a reality. So excited was I by all this that I submitted a number of designs for space houses, space scooters, space buses and other space ephemera to the space people at the then British Aerospace (where my Dad worked). I can only assume that after my designs were presented to the space people they were sent to be developed in some super top secret area, away from public view, as I have yet to see any of my designs in use, or in space.
As time went by, I came to realise that technology progresses slower than I realised and the same old Space Shuttle kept on taking off and coming back. Occasionally a new orbiter would enter service, or a particularly dangerous or difficult mission would be undertaken and my interest would pique again. But I was growing older and was no longer as excited about outer space as I used to be, and of course the terrible disasters which claimed first Challenger and then Columbia with the loss of all on board, took some of the shine away from the Shuttle program. But now we are two or three launches away from the end of the Space Shuttle program. No like-for-like replacement is in place and this particular era of space exploration is coming to an end.
Many will point to the fact that space exploration is hugely costly and, in a time of global financial crisis, America (or anyone else for that matter) can ill afford to be throwing $450 million a pop at Shuttle missions. Is it worth that amount to science to keep the Hubble Space Telescope going, for example? The Shuttle was a versatile platform able to perform launches, maintenance, construction, scientific experiments, basically whatever was required. The proposed replacements I have seen, look like a step backwards; unmanned craft, multi stage rockets. I mean, in 2063 Zephram Cochrane is supposed to make the first warp flight. It aint that far away. But cost is the problem, and much as I would love to see billions poured into space exploration I would rather see those billions poured into medicine, the eradication of Third World debt, equal education, clean power and any number of other worthy causes.
I suppose this means that the Space Shuttle has become a relic of the Eighties, a cowboy president searching for his own Wild West in a time of greed and selfishness when humanity’s needs could be dismissed for the sake of humanity’s goals.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t be sad to see the end of the Space Shuttle program. I’ve grown up with the Space Shuttle, lived with it through triumph and tragedy. Like Concorde before it the financial world has not been able to keep up with the science, priorities have changed. In both cases it seems economy has won over convenience.
Discovery is scheduled to take off for the final time on November the first this year, Endeavor will retire after its mission scheduled for February 26th 2011. This could be the last ever mission. A final mission for Atlantis has been proposed, but not approved for June 28th 2011, thirty days and two months after Columbia’s first flight.
Then Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis will be sent to various museums and collections, as will Enterprise, the prototype which never achieved orbital flight.
On September 17th 1976 Enterprise rolled out of the manufacturing facility Palmdale, California. Originally it was to be named Constitution (in honour of the bicentennial of the US Constitution) but a write-in campaign by Star Trek fans convinced NASA and the White House to change the name. The photograph below was taken at the dedication ceremony where, fittingly, Gene Roddenberry and a number of original Star Trek cast members were in attendance. I was three months old. It looks like I may be somewhat older before we really do boldly go where no one has gone before.


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