Final Blast

Atlantis & the Last 
Flight of the Shuttles

In the end, it happened on schedule almost to the minute: despite the threatening weather, the last mission for the Space Shuttles began at 11:29am 10 years ago today. A record crowd witnessed the launch, aware that their children won’t get to see a show like that.
Four astronauts headed to the Space Station and when they came back 16 days later, it was all over: the Shuttle Program’s 135th mission, its 30-year history, and possibly NASA’s leading role in space exploration. Our hearts skipped a beat when that era drew to a close.
The future then pointed to what’s happening now: space is a mostly private and commercial enterprise, and a new toy for billionaires. Science now takes a backseat and the technology that made possible the reusable space buses is at least 50 years too old.
It’s been a long way since NASA’s glorious days. After getting us to the Moon, it seemed to have lost its plot. Public interest plunged, federal funds dried up, and criticism mounted for running expensive programs with little hard-science research breakthroughs to account for.
Not much more may be expected from corporations whose main goal may be to fly celebrities to sub-orbital hotels to engorge their bottom line. Still, routine maintenance flights to the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope will be needed and NASA is the go-to for that.
Read Also:
* The Last Detour
* Enterprise
* Welcome Home

In this era of diminishing ambitions, grandstanding, and a general malaise that we are no longer the people who get to accomplish great things, a few sobering realities have already settled in. Among them is that we badly needed that dream then and that we badly need it now.
As the Shuttle Program ended after three decades fueling our collective imagination to fly ever higher, to dare above our limits, to seek what’s out there, we began a new, more humble journey through the far side of our starstruck dreams. It hasn’t been a happy ride.
It’ll take more than our usual drive to discover, reach out, and transcend. To go where no one has gone before we need to put down our smartphones. Otherwise, only the powerful and those they employ will ever blast off from the Earth as the shuttles did so many times.
But even if we decide to send only rich dopes, or robots, or drones, or mini-satellites, we’ll still need to put our heart into it, something a bit rare lately. Someone will need to dream of blasting into the Space Station but who’ll even don a spacesuit if they don’t know how worthwhile it is to take a shot?
To dream is a serious business and it almost never gives returns from the get go. We must find ways to inspire our kids to believe that it’s worth trying. Even if we, as far as reality and the space program are concerned, are officially giving it all up today.
(*) Originally published on July 8, 2011.

The Last Detour

When Columbia & Her Crew
Did Not Come Back to Earth

They died doing what they loved. And before going, they’d done all they’d set themselves to do. Ten years ago today, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon, got ready to return home.
It wasn’t to be. The Columbia, a 28-mission veteran shuttle that had been their shelter in the sky for 16 days, disintegrated on re-entry, in the final tragedy of the 30-year space program. We lost their lives, NASA lost its craft, but no dream has been sacrificed in the crash.
While it lasted and until its end, in July of 2011, the Shuttle Program did manage to keep the human aspiration of traveling in space very much alive. That despite its limited range and its specific overall mission, which was to build the International Space Station.
Curiously, the Columbia never visited that orbiting outpost where today, as we speak, six astronauts are still keeping vigil. Neither the program itself has been replaced by anything near its long-term original purpose. We’re definitely living an era of diminished expectations.
In a way, the upside of that is that it assigns epic dimensions to the space shuttles, and truly heroic colors to the 350 people who flew on their missions. Given the risks, it’s also amazing that their safety record Continue reading


Brief Scrapbook About
the Newest New Yorker

As the Space Shuttle Enterprise arrived at the Intrepid Museum this week, and it’s getting ready to greet the locals at its new home, let’s take a quick look at what we’ve found on our files about it and its distinguished sisters. NASA’s gift to New York may not have traveled too far out in space but it was the first to open its fleet’s storied 30-years of space flights, adventures and drama.
The Enterprise was used as a test vehicle for the other shuttles that followed it and it did fly a few times, in the late 1970s. It even went into a world tour, which introduced the then new concept of a reusable space vehicle as the next stage of human space exploration. No one can say it didn’t serve its purposes of making travel for future astronauts a lot safer.
While it lacks crucial features incorporated in all other crafts of its fleet, such as the thermal protection system and radar equipment, for example, its overall design and interior configuration are pretty close to the others. The idea of retrofitting it and preparing it for orbit was abandoned due to costs, though, and it remained an oddity once the program started rolling.
In other words, a typical New Yorker already: ‘different,’ eclectic, slightly under-achiever, but, ultimately, not really interested in being like everyone else. The Enterprise will receive its guests at first under a temporary tent, just like newcomers to the city who crash at their friends’ studio for a few months, before finding their own place.
The Intrepid Museum will eventually build a special enclosure to its new resident, but way before that it’ll hopefully have achieved what we all expect from it: to fire up the imagination of thousands of school kids who, from mid-July on, are expected to visit and get a closer look at what a real spacecraft looks and feels like.
Other cities may have gotten higher-mileage shuttles than the Enterprise. Some of those have a lot of history, and stories to tell, Continue reading

Space Landmarks

Shuttle Enterprise Comes to
New York Intrepid Museum

Maybe it’s all a coincidence. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, the one that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin‘s undertook around the earth. That historical, 108-minute trip ignited a fierce competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. to land a man on the moon and ended eight years later with American Neil Armstrong stepping on the surface of earth’s satellite.
Twenty years to the day of Gagarin‘s flight, NASA launched the first of the Space Shuttles, Columbia, which along Continue reading