I’m feeling a bit melancholy about the end of the US Space Shuttle Program. Today, via the wonders of the internet, I witnessed the 135th and final launch of these awesome machines.
As I write this, Shuttle Atlantis is in orbit over the Earth, making its way to a docking with the International Space Station.
The photos you see above were taken by me on April 27, 1981, just a few weeks after the completion of the first Shuttle mission, STS-1, by Shuttle Columbia. It had landed at Edwards AFB in California and was being transferred back to Florida piggybacked on a NASA 747.
My college roommate at the time, Michael Ryan, and I had heard that the shuttle was going to make a stop at Tinker AFB just outside of Oklahoma City. When we heard that it was going to be open to the public, we couldn’t resist seeing it.
We made a mad dash from Stillwater, OK, driving the 70 miles to Tinker, arriving just in time to see the shuttle/747 descending over the highway towards the runway. Traffic for miles around came to a standstill and people got out of their cars to watch.
Eventually making it onto the Air Force base, we were allowed to view the shuttle from less than 100 yards away. I can’t imagine being allowed to do that today.
I have been captivated by the manned space program my whole life. In the ’60s and 70’s, I was mesmerized by the Apollo program and vividly remember watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, during Apollo 11.
For 30 years, the Shuttle program has waxed and waned in my attention, but I remember, almost painfully, where I was when I learned of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
And so, yes, there’s melancholy to see this program end and I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see America continue its manned exploration of space.
Americans have always been curious explorers of the frontier. It’s part of our definition and our genetics. I worry about the cohesion of our national identity when we set this aside.
Oh, how I pray we remember to be pioneers. I take hope from Commander Christopher Ferguson, who before the flight, saluted all those who contributed over the years to the shuttle program.
“The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through,” he said. “We’re not ending the journey today … we’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”