Those magnificent men in their flying machines to fly no more…. as NASA’s shuttle program ends and an era with it.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. To get into the right frame of mind for this article, search any search engine for the music and lyrics to “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (released 1965, music by Ron Goodwin). Prepare to be aroused as one of the great stories of our lives soars…
For most of us the space age has a quite specific commencement — October 4, 1957. That was the launch date of the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik I. I was there. Like every single American, my concerned, curious parents herded my brother and me into the backyard of our suburban Illinois home… as we saw our sense of security destroyed by a 184.3 pound device called a Sputnik. In my mind’s eye, I remember the event with complete clarity; I seem to remember, too, that it made a beeping sound… but that may not be so.
What was so was that all the verities of the heartland ended for a generation right then and there.
“Better Red than dead,” people said. Was that our new reality? We started to look for Russkies under the bed…
Sputnik spooked us at the moment of our greatest power; we thought we were the only game in town… Sputnik was a jolting wake-up call which President Eisenhower, old and full of honors, missed. A restless Senator John F. Kennedy did not. It was Kennedy who read the thoroughly aroused and anxious public mood better… and in due course made him President of the United States, an office Ike, who established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (October 1, 1958), felt Kennedy unqualified to hold. Maybe so… but Kennedy is rightly seen as the man who galvanized America’s fears and turned them into the fuel for conquering space — and giving us back our lost security.
We had to conquer space… and that meant having a space station and the means to get back and forth to them. From the moment Sputnik flew, 1440 orbits of Earth in only 3 months, the shuttle program was a given. And we put all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to work on it. The result was the launch of Explorer I (officially Satellite 1958), January 31, 1958. It was the U.S.’s first earth satellite. It was rushed to launch so fast that its tape data recorder was not modified in time to make it onto the satellite. Nonetheless, the nation breathed a sigh of relief… we were back in the game.
Project Mercury followed and the grand era of magnificent men in their flying machines….men whose names the nation knew and whose pictures could be found in every schoolroom of a grateful America… astronaut Alan Shepard (first American in space May 5, 1961)… astronaut John Glenn (first American to orbit the Earth, February 20, 1961)… and all the others… culminating in that never-to-be-forgotten day of American pride, July 20, 1969 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked the lunar landscape while Michael Collins orbited above.
These were truly the up, up and away days! We were late to the space game, but having started we approached the matter with characteristic energy, imagination and determination, a great people committed to a great goal.
The first shuttle launch, February 15, 1977.
The shuttle program was our way of saying that our connection with space was a permanent one, that we’d be going back and forth as part of our preparation for ever grander explorations. And so…
2/15/77, OV-101, Enterprise (yes, it was named after the television series), performed its first (taxi) test flight as part of the shuttle program. It never flew in space and was cannibalized for parts.
Then April 12, 1981, OV-102, Columbia, blasted into orbit, becoming the first successful space flight in the space shuttle program. (STS-1, Space Transportation System.) It returned on April 14, 1981, after orbiting Earth 36 times. Columbia carried just two crew members: Apollo veteran John W. Young and rookie pilot Robert L. Crippen.
August 30, 1984, OV-103, Discovery, was first flown on mission STS-41-D, launching two communications satellites and becoming the third operational NASA orbital shuttle following Columbia and Challenger.
But tragedy lay dead ahead.
We must never forget that at the core of the shuttle program was danger. Good men and women, dedicated, our nation’s finest, always understood that death was always a possibility. That no matter how often the system was tested; no matter how many experts signed off on the matter, catastrophe was always a real possibility. They all accepted that as part of the adventure, the great game, the cost of doing business.
January 28, 1986, STS-51-L Challenger, a nation shocked, a nation mourns.
This was supposed to be another day of American triumph; instead, with the disintegration of the Challenger over the Atlantic Ocean it became a signature day of national mourning.
These 7 crew members gave their lives:
Francis (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe; the plucky teacher who meant to teach the world’s school children about space and instead taught them all about the shortness of life and the costs of commitment. That day the nation was reminded of the terrible costs that may come when frontiers are challenged. That day, too, the nation was fortunate in its president; Ronald Reagan’s decency and empathy were notable. We were all grateful for that.
975 days later, September 29, 1988, STS-26 Discovery launched with five crew members into space, always beckoning, always challenging, with so very much more to discover, study and know.
On February 1, 2003, tragedy struck again and again it was brought home to the nation that the costs of “conquering” space included periodic tragedy as it did this day when STS-107 came to an abrupt and tragic conclusion. Seven crew members died…
Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark.
And again the shuttle flew. It was the American way.
Now, however, changing budget priorities have done what no great tragedies succeeded in doing. Thus the shuttle, after just a few more flights, will end, thirty years and 133 missions later. Is this the last word on the matter? For the shuttle, probably; but for space? As long as one child looks up and wonders what there is in the great beyond, determined to find out, this story will never end…
Readers: for a thorough bibliography on the history of the space shuttle, search for “Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography ” compiled by Roger D. Launius and Aaron G. Gillette.
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About The Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at worldprofit.com and JeffreyLantArticles.com
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Author: Jeffrey LantThis author has published 572 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.