Friday, July 08, 2011
The last shuttle launch
I just watched the space shuttle Atlantis safely launch on the final mission of the Space Shuttle program, 30 years after I watched the first launch of the program. 30 years. Wow.
On April 10, 1981, I was a first-grader, and my parents kept me home from school to watch the launch. I had never seen a rocket launch. The final Apollo moon landing happened a year before I was born, the final Skylab mission was halfway over when I was born, and I was a toddler when Apollo-Soyuz was launched. So space travel was a foreign idea to me, and I didn't understand the fascination. I remember seeing this ungainly machine sitting on the launch pad and telling my parents that it would never work, and that I wanted to go to school. When the countdown clock stopped 31 seconds before launch, I laughed, said, "See, I told you", and saw a pained look on my parents' face.
Two days later, the STS-1 did launch, and again, I was forced to watch. But as soon as the engines fired and the shuttle lifted off the pad, I was hooked. Although commander John Young had been in space as part of both Gemini and Apollo, those missions meant nothing to me, and for years I associated him solely with the space shuttle.
Over the coming years, I read everything I could about the space shuttle and astronauts, and even subscribed to a magazine and ordered a science encyclopedia without my parents' permission. (Kids, don't do that!) Thankfully, they paid more or less willingly for my enthusiasm.
I grew up with the shuttle program, entering my turbulent teens at the same time as the Challenger disaster. I went to Space Camp (technically Space Academy) in 1988 and saw models of the great Space Station Freedom and second-generation shuttle-like vehicles that would be operating in just the next few years. Then I watched as these programs were cancelled, reconstituted and rescoped, cancelled again, and yet again reborn. I watched the shuttle launch and repeatedly save the Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps its finest hour. I took my first job as a professional astronomer at the same time as the Columbia disaster. And now, 30 years after it began, we're finishing the space station and putting the shuttle into retirement.
Many people question whether the money we spend on space exploration is worth the cost. Without hesitation, I say that it is. The space program is less expensive than many people realize; out of every $100 in federal spending, 47 cents goes to NASA. And it's not like we are launching bales of money into space; most of that costs pays American workers and American companies for labor and products, so that money goes directly back into our economy. Our modern economy relies on space, from satellite communications, weather satellites, and through GPS navigation, space exploration impacts our everyday lives.
And space exploration serves another purpose. It is inspiring. How many hundreds of thousands or millions of children are like me, inspired to study and advance technology and science by watching big, lumbering rockets atop a thin spindle of smoke and flame? Our technology-driven economy relies on that spark of interest.