Thursday, May 06, 2010 | |

to orbit
Discovery had a perfect liftoff at 6:21 EDT, with the glow of sunrise just leaking up over the horizon. As it ascended, it flew into the sunlight, which lit up its contrail against the dark blue sky above. I can't imagine how amazing that would look from inside the orbiter, to look out the window and see the sun coming up over the horizon--not because, as millions of generations of humanity have experienced sunrise, the earth silently rotates beneath it, but because you are leaving the earth behind to the roar of 80 million horsepower beneath you, flying to it.

It's hard to describe how much seeing this meant to me. The shuttle program is, of course, the only manned program NASA has had in my lifetime. I was born in the middle of the shuttle fleet's two-year grounding following the Challenger disaster. It was the lowest of the lows the agency had sunk to since the Apollo program, which no longer existed in my mind as a triumph to be inspired by, but had long since passed into to the realm of history to be studied. And now, the shuttle program is set to pass on as well, but with a much more ignominious legacy.

Its history has been plagued with chronic cost overruns (a single flight costs $1.5 billion, twice as much as originally estimated), delays in turnaround time (each vehicle was originally expected to be able to launch every two weeks, but it actually takes months to refurbish the engines and thermal tiles), and a near absence of commercial activity (private entities and the military reverted to expendable launch vehicles when it became clear the shuttle was not meeting its operational targets). And of course, two vehicles and 14 lives were lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. By almost every measure of performance--financial, operational, and safety--the shuttle has failed miserably.

Even more damning, others would argue, is that the overbudget, bureaucratic, pork-barrel monstrosity that the shuttle program grew up to be represents a more fundamental failure of imagination. After a dizzying 10 years where NASA went from an advisory council barely able to send a monkey up a ladder to successfully landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, the shuttle program was a 40 year period when NASA took its eye off the ball and decided to settle for building a $170 billion taxi running circles around the earth; 40 years lost when we should have been going back to the moon, establishing a lunar colony, and going to Mars.

Perhaps these critics are right. But the decision to build the shuttle was taken long before I was born. I can't second-guess them. It wasn't as if they set out to design a failure. The shuttle was more than just a reusable rocket--the shuttle was the dream of making going to space routine. For my lifetime, and my generation's lifetimes, the shuttle remained our only link to that dream, to everything that lay out there. It's all we had growing up.

Each of the three remaining orbiters are now scheduled to fly one final mission each. Shuttle Atlantis is the first to bow; it's currently being prepared for its final launch, scheduled for Friday. It will deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Godspeed, Atlantis, and we thank you.

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