More than 30 years ago — April 12, 1981, to be exact — I stood in awe and cheered like crazy as Columbia rocketed skyward from Florida's Kennedy Space Center and inaugurated the Space Shuttle era. So when today was set for the shuttle's final launch, I just had to be there.
Much has been written elsewhere about the shuttle's legacy — its many successes, tragic losses, high cost, and dominance of U.S. space activity for two generations. An Associated Press analysis notes that the shuttle program cost $196 billion over the 40 years since its inception. So I won't dwell on all that here. Instead, let me offer a few reflections and recollections.
I'd forgotten how many people come out to watch these high-profile launches. The official estimates of the throngs that lined every roadway for miles ranged from 500,000 to 750,000. I got to see quite a few of them as my rental car inched toward KSC in the predawn darkness.
Reaching the area reserved for news media, I elbowed my way through 1,500 reporters, photographers, assistants, stylists, grips, gaffers, and gawkers before finally picking a viewing spot behind KSC's famous countdown clock.
Thanks to a tropical storm system churning in the Caribbean, the weather was iffy for the past two days. But as the day dawned and the ground continued to stay dry, optimism grew inside and outside the control center for a "go". Atlantis cleared the tower this morning at 11:29 a.m. EDT, near the end of a 10-minute-long window. The 135th and final Space Shuttle mission was under way.
I'd also forgotten how many people it takes to launch these amazing machines. Thousands of hard-working engineers and technicians went through their extensive checklists for the last time. Some of the old-timers have been with the program since the beginning, and this final climb to orbit must have been especially bittersweet. Thousands of them, young and old, will lose those coveted jobs in the weeks and months ahead.
It's astounding to see a Space Shuttle launch in person. You can't hear the countdown when you're outside awaiting liftoff — instead, you just have to watch for the burst of smoke that pours from the rocket's base. The three main engines fire first, while everything remains bolted to earth. But once the silo-shaped solid rocket boosters (SRBs) are lit, the "stack" veritably leaps off the pad.
I'm always amazed by the long, brilliant dagger of flame coming from those engines. Photos and videos just don't do it justice. The entire craft is 184 feet (56 m) tall, but the flames seem to extend three times as long. It's an overused cliché, but the shuttles really do (or did) ride a pillar of flame into the sky. Then the sound envelops you — not just a loud roar but pounding, pulses of energy that you feel in your gut.
A lot of people in and out of NASA are worried about "what's next" for human space exploration. The International Space Station will continue, of course, at least through the end of this decade. But with the shuttle program's end, American astronauts won't be rocketing to orbit atop American-built boosters. Instead, they'll be hitching rides, for a negotiated fee, aboard the Russians' tried-and-true Soyuz system.
One thing I haven't forgotten is that this won't be the first hiatus for NASA's human space program. We sometimes lose sight of the six-year gap between the last launch of an Apollo capsule (which docked in orbit a Soviet-built Soyuz) and Columbia's inaugural flight in 1981. For now NASA has its sights set on developing a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, but there's considerable debate about whether it represents the best "next step" for the U.S. effort.
In the meantime, there's plenty of space exploration in the offing. Soon NASA will be launching its twin GRAIL spacecraft to the Moon and dispatching the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity to the Red Planet. Commercial enterprises like SpaceX (which has a dedicated launch pad here at Cape Canaveral), Virgin Galactic, and others promise to give everyday citizens the thrill of going to space.
Our future in space is assured. NASA might be in for a rough few years as it retools and reorganizes, but years from now I'm certain to return to Florida once again to witness another astronaut-tipped American rocket climb into the sky and the black beyond.