The End of an Era in Space

This morning, while I was having my usual cup of tea, I watched the space shuttle Discovery make its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center.  Discovery is now retired and will eventually be moved to the Smithsonian for permanent display.

Discovery’s first flight began August 30, 1984 with the STS-41-D mission.  During its more than 26 years of service, Discovery flew 39 missions, a cumulative total of 365 days in orbit, traveled 148,221,675 miles, carried 246 crew members into orbit, and made 5,830 orbits.  At its retirement, Discovery holds the record for all of the space shuttles in the fleet and this record will stand.

There are only 2 more planned shuttle flights.  Endeavor is scheduled to launch on April 19, 2011, for STS-134.  The last scheduled shuttle flight is Atlantis on June 28, 2011, for STS-135.  Once Atlantis returns home, the era I have known for most of my life will come to an end.

The United States manned space flight programs began with John Glenn being the first American to orbit the Earth in Mercury 6, which launched on February 20, 1962.  I can’t say I remember what happened that day because I was only 4-1/2 years old at the time.  From that point forward, the United States had manned space programs that advanced one to another.  On July 21, 1969, astronauts aboard Apollo 11, landed on the moon.  I was almost 12 years old for that event and I remember being glued to our black and white television, watching it as it happened.  That first moon landing was more than 40 years ago.  One thing I find completely amazing is that we were able to accomplish such a task then, but we lack the capability to do anything close to that today.

The next step was the space shuttle program.  The space shuttle was different from the previous programs because it was designed to carry crew and cargo into Earth orbit and then glide back to land on the ground.  It seemed like public interest in the space program faded after the first few shuttle flights.  I can remember live coverage being broadcast on network television for the first few shuttle flights.  I didn’t watch network television this morning, but I am quite sure that regularly scheduled programming was not interrupted for Discovery’s landing.  Thankfully, we have the Internet and streaming video so that those of us, who still find this space stuff interesting, can watch it live.

So, what’s next for the United States?  As the space shuttle program comes to an end, there is talk of another program to the moon or perhaps Mars.  But, as far as I can tell, there is nothing beyond discussions.  There is hope that private companies will be able to produce manned space flight vehicles.  The International Space Station will be active for some time to come.  However, any Americans that will be traveling to the ISS after June 2011 will need to hitch a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

I have always been interested in anything to do with space.  I imagine the era I grew up in had a lot to do with this.  When I was young, the things I found to be amazing were not computer-generated.  They were real life.  I am certainly not against computers.  I spend a fair amount of time each day using my computers.  But, I think the generation after mine missed out in the awe that I felt, and still feel, watching events in space.  I’m sad for them because they, for the most part, missed what I and the rest of my generation got to experience.  And, with nothing more advanced on the horizon, it feels like space for most people will be an occasional movie that comes along.  It is the end of an era.

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