Not long ago I spent the afternoon with one of my nephews. On my desk was a plastic Space Shuttle model my father built several years ago. NASA TV was on in the back ground providing coverage of Discovery’s STS-124 mission to the International Space Station. Like most eleven year old boys, my nephew is a curious person and, seeing the Space Shuttle on NASA TV and the model on my desk, he began asking questions about it. “What are those long white things on the side? What is that big orange thing in the middle? Can people really sit in the orbiter while they turn on the engines like they did in that “Space Camp” movie?” While he was disappointed to learn that average people are not allowed to sit in the orbiter’s cockpit during the flight readiness firing of the orbiter’s main engines as depicted in the 1986 movie “Space Camp”, he was impressed with the other aspects of the Space Shuttle. He was fascinated by the fact that the Shuttle could take off like a rocket but land like an airplane. He was shocked when I told him that the commander of the Shuttle had to land without engines and that he or she had only one opportunity to make a successful landing. After talking with my nephew for a while about the Space Shuttle, he began to realize what a technologically exceptional piece of machinery the Shuttle really is. At that moment, the Space Shuttle became for him not an old, routine flying machine but a cool space ship.
To the average American, it has probably been a long time since they viewed the Space Shuttle as “cool”. While the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft each flew for less than ten years, the Space Shuttle has been flying since April 1981. America’s early spacecraft have become history and are thus looked back on and remembered fondly with the passage of time. The Space Shuttle has not had the benefit of hindsight yet. Because it is still in operation today, we have not been able to look back on the Space Shuttle over a long span of time as we have with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close at the end of this decade, there will undoubtedly be countless post-mortems on the Space Shuttle program. Some will cheer as the Space Shuttles make their final voyage into museums. The Shuttle has long had critics and they will no doubt be pleased to see them go. Others (and I suspect they are in the minority) will hang their heads in sadness as the Space Shuttle program concludes. Personally I think the jury is still out on the Space Shuttle and will be for some time. The true measure of the Space Shuttle program can not accurately be taken until long after it concludes. Only then can we look back on the Space Shuttle program, as we can now with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and judge what did and did not work about the program.
While the program never lived up to its promise of making spaceflight routine and inexpensive, what cannot be denied about the Space Shuttle is that it is one of the most complex machines ever devised by humans. The development of the Space Shuttle’s main engines, the external tank, the solid rocket boosters, the Canadian-built robotic arm, the thermal protection tiles, the ability to launch like a rocket and return as an unpowered glider, and numerous other innovations make it worthy of recognition. Without the Space Shuttle we would not have the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, Spacelab, the Teacher in Space program, the ability to place numerous commercial and scientific satellites into orbit, and various other space projects.
Perhaps one day more people will look at the Space Shuttle as my nephew does and think of it as “cool.” As the Space Shuttle fades into history, maybe people will look at the technological marvels of the vehicle and remember it fondly rather than only recalling its flaws. The United States will likely not return to a fully reusable vehicle for space travel for some time. Because of the cost and the challenge of maintaining a fully reusable fleet of space vehicles, the world will probably see the last fully reusable space vehicle in 2010 when Endeavour makes its final flight. Maybe then people will see what a unique and impressive invention the Space Shuttle truly was.