End of the Space Shuttle era

If all goes right, this coming Friday, July 8 at 11:26 am, the space shuttle Atlantis should rocket into space on the final voyage of the space shuttle era. I was stationed in Germany back in 1981 when the first shuttle – Columbia – took to the skies, so I missed much of the excitement of that launch. Some of the early flights were highly classified “military missions” which was fine with those of us facing the Communist hordes on the other side of the inter-German border during a very tense period of the Cold War.

As shuttle flights became more frequent. the dominant image for most was of the space vehicle gliding in for a runway landing like a big white bus with stubby wings. That all changed one cold January day back in 1986 when the shuttle Challenger catastrophically exploded soon after launch, reminding us that space flight was an extremely dangerous venture. That realization was thrust into our lives again on a Saturday in 2003 when the Columbia burned up during atmospheric re-entry with the loss of all aboard.

Challenger and Columbia are commemorated with memorials in Arlington National Cemetery. The one to Challenger, shown above, reads “In Grateful and Loving Tribute to the Brave Crew of the United States Space Shuttle Challenger, 28 Jan 1986” while the adjacent memorial to Columbia, shown below, reads “In memory of the crew of United States Space Shuttle Columbia, 1 Feb 2003.”

Space exploration is expensive and some might question its utility, but pushing the bounds of science is critically important to the continued vitality of our country and our culture. The fact that I’m not really sure what will replace the shuttle is cause for concern.