The good news is that the space shuttle Atlantis returned safely this week from its latest mission.
The bad news is that this was Atlantis’ last flight, and the last mission in NASA’s space shuttle programme.
It’s sad, not to mention mad, that NASA, with all its skill and experience in putting men and women into space, should be forced to close down its successful shuttle programme, with nothing to replace it for years. Yes, it has been successful…despite the tragic loss of two shuttles during its 30-year duration, it’s achieved so much. It should have the chance to achieve more.
I’ve been hooked on the idea of space travel ever since I started reading science fiction as a youngster. Not surprising; it’s been a dream of humans on this planet for decades that we can one day venture into space, visit the Moon and the other planets, and perhaps even set up colonies on our less hostile neighbours.
I shared the dream. I still do. When I was a child I expected I’d one day venture into outer space myself. As I grew up this seemed less likely, though I’m still too much of a dreamer to rule it out completely! But I’ve never lost the certainty, shared by so many people growing up in the 1950s, that it’s part of humanity’s destiny to travel, work, and explore in outer space.
I think back to some of the wonderful science fiction I read, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s, from authors like Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein,…and I remember a thrilling radio series here on the BBC in the 1950s, Journey Into Space. Most of the stories were set in a “future” which has already happened, in calendar terms anyhow, and still the human race hasn’t set up bases on the Moon, let alone walked on Mars or the moons of Jupiter.
But there have been exciting milestone achievements for would-be spacers to applaud. I still remember the thrill when the first Sputnik was launched, and when Yuri Gagarin completed his first earth orbit. Then there was the first Apollo circuit around the Moon, and soon after that men were walking on its surface…and I could see and hear them, thanks to modern technology.
Then followed more Apollo missions, Skylab and the space shuttle, seeing the Martian landscape through the “eyes” of a Mars rover, the International Space Station.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch a live shuttle launch. In 1998 Richard and I saw Endeavour lift off from Florida on a January evening. It was wonderful to be there all day for the countdown, and then experience the climax, the shuttle’s fiery takeoff into the night sky. To use an over-exploited word, it was awesome.
Yet now, just when we have a base outside earth (only just outside, but it’s a start,) the US Government have closed the shuttle programme down. And why? To save money! My reaction to this is unrepeatable on a public blog. How much money does America waste on other far less important projects? Answer: much more than the amount that will be saved by stopping the shuttles from flying.
But at least the International Space Station is up and running, and Russians are still flying people there…including Americans. They’ll keep the dream alive until America gets its act together and starts providing manned spaceflight once more.
I still believe the space dream will come true some day. And when it does, we’ll all remember the space shuttles, and the contribution they’ve made.