For most of my life I have lived watching the space shuttle program from afar. As a youth, I thought I would have the opportunity to fly on the shuttle. Of course that didn’t happen but I still will miss the shuttle in many ways. Take a walk through my childhood memories of the Space Transportation System.
STS-1, the very first shuttle mission was a huge memory for me. When it launched on April 12, 1981, I remember getting out of bed early so we could see the launch together. The memory of seeing this launch on TV with my family is still with me. Watching this flight on TV was my early inspiration for getting into a science of some sort. I was only 10 years old and I was completely dazzled by this new spacecraft that could launch like a rocket and land like an airplane.
As the years went by, I remember buying up and asking for every space shuttle themed toy I could get. I had a diecast Enterprise, Columbia with a launch pad and one of my most coveted toys at the time, a plastic version of the Enterprise my grandpa bought for me at Kennedy Space Center. Needless to say, I was a fan of the Shuttle. In 1985 I even bought the operator’s manual they had when I visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
One of my worst memories of the space program of all time was when in 1986, mission 51-L, Challenger’s last mission, blew up on launch. I was in ninth grade and was completely devastated. We found out about it while I was in Algebra class and the rest of the day we did no work. We watched the news coverage praying and hoping that someone made it out of that alive. We know that that did not happen and it still affects me to this day. One bit of memorabilia that I still have is a hat with “scrambled eggs” on it with the very first Challenger mission patch, STS-6, sewed on. I will never give that hat up. You see I always saw Challenger as my shuttle because STS-6 was launched on April 4, 1983 which was also my birthday. I will never forget STS-51L.
One of the best memories is when we returned to space when STS-26 launched with shuttle Discovery. I was a junior in High School and I think I even did a report on the shuttle mission for class. I was psyched! The shuttle was flying again and here I was sitting with just one year left of high school. At the time, I was looking at submitting my application to Penn State University and studying Aerospace Engineering.
In 2003, I was relatively new in the job I currently hold. In January of that year, I was called in to fix a problem and as I was driving to work on that Saturday, I turned on the radio and heard them talking about the shuttle. I thought that they were talking about the Challenger accident since it was really close to the anniversary of that tragic event. Of course now we all know that they weren’t talking about 1986. They were talking about 2003 and Columbia, STS-107, burning up on re-entry. I still feel the memory of how I gasped and got out my phone and started calling people to let them know. We lost another 7 astronauts.
After the Columbia, I read Evelyn Husband’s “High Calling” about her life with her husband, Space Shuttle Commander Rick Husband. It was when I was reading this book that I realized what a sacrifice that these men and women have all made. Not just the ones who died, but the ones who were involved in every mission that is a part of the shuttle program. These men and women who strap themselves into a vehicle that may take their life are real people. They aren’t just astronauts but dads, moms, brothers and sisters. They gave part or all of their life in the name of science.
For over 30 years I have followed the shuttle program. It saddens me that it will shortly be over. Atlantis may be flying high over head today, but in a few short days it will return to Earth to stay and the program will end. Rather than vent about there not being a replacement yet, I will end this post with a hearty thank you to the astronauts, launch controllers, mission planners and their families for the sacrifice that they ALL made so that we could learn a little bit more about the universe we all live in. Thank you NASA and all of the people who made all of these great memories possible.
God speed Atlantis and return safely.