Thursday, July 21, 2011

The End of an Era

Source: NASA
The Atlantis touched down this morning at 5:57 EDT, bringing to an end the shuttle-era at NASA.

Born in 1967, I was a bit to young to remember the moon landing and have no recollection of the later Apollo moon missions, which concluded with mission 17 in 1972.  I did, however, grow up in the shuttle era.  I recall the promises of regular space flight (at 2 week intervals), the testing of Enterprise, the launch of Columbia in 1981, and the catastrophic explosion of Challenger in January 1986.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
The Challenger disaster is one of a handful of moments in my life that I remember vividly where and when I was when I heard the news.  I was in a barber shop, and, upon the completion of my haircut, spent the rest of the day in my dorm following the news.

The shuttle program never lived up to early promise, and proved to cost about $1 billion per launch...far costlier than advertised early in the program.  Nevertheless, I think we will miss it.  There is something inspiring about space flight.  Even though I didn't experience Apollo, I was moved to tears when I visited Kennedy Space Center and stood next to a Saturn-V rocket.

Although manned space flight is at a crossroads, it is worth remembering that NASA does much more, including the development and operation of polar orbiting and low inclination satellites for observing the Earth System.  Such efforts have greatly advanced our understanding of the atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, and hydrosphere (that's alot of spheres!).

Source: NASA
Let's hope we will find a way to do big things as we move forward from here.

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