135 missions, and no longer counting. The space Shuttle program may have ended on July 21, 2011, but our fascination with space exploration did not—at least not this writer’s. As an early baby boomer, I grew up in the era when every rocket launch was a school-pausing, breath-holding, dream-making, applause-generating, special event.
As a teen and young adult, the reality of evolving space exploration gave a science-truth grounding to my reading and re-reading of science-fiction novels like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
When Apollo landed on the moon in 1969, my family had a late-night, grainy-TV-image-watch party—replete with my mother’s specially concocted “moon muffins” [filled with Swiss cheese, of course]. Later, when my folks moved to Florida, we commemorated Shuttle launches by ascending to the rooftop observation deck of their condominium, binoculars in hand, and looked North toward the Cape, where the blastoff contrail cut through the sky to thrill us again.
As an older adult, I took a spontaneous vacation detour to Cape Canaveral to see a Shuttle landing and caught the excitement one more time. Arriving just five minutes before the scheduled landing, we parked, joined the crowd, heard the double sonic-boom that signals re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and scanned the sky. And then, a nine-year-old girl spotted the descending Shuttle before anyone else and alerted the crowd, pointing to the sky and shouting “There it is!” It was a beautiful moment, confirming that, while many politicians, bureaucrats and jaded citizens are turning away, space travel continues to instill wonder and awe in kids.
For now, though it’s the end of an era. NASA’s funding for manned space exploration has dried up. There will still be U.S.-government-funded, unmanned missions, and that’s a good thing. But I’m confident that humankind’s lust for discovery—coupled with the more base drive for profit and military advantage—will keep the notion of manned exploration alive.
In the meantime, luckily for all of us, Scientific American’s Nature Video team has created an entertaining, eight-minute video keepsake, recapping all 135 Space Shuttle missions, and yes, it includes the tragedies. Some may call it hokey, with its inspirational, new-age sound track; some may find the accompanying text a bit self-aggrandizing and sentimental. But I think it’s worth a click and a few of minutes of contemplation. And it makes me look forward, breathlessly, to the next 50 years of space adventures.