I know it doesn’t feel like a particularly ebullient birthday since you and your remaining orbiters — Space Shuttles Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour — are rapidly approaching mandatory retirement. It’s obvious you have a lot of life left in you, as Discovery‘s repeated delays of her final curtain call (STS-133) make abundantly clear! Unfortunately, you have proven to be much more complicated than your parents ever anticipated. Frankly, your parents took a “best case” scenario of your life and ran with it, before they really got to know you or the world you would grow up in. When you failed, your failures were ineffably painful and played out in public. In all honesty, it’s a wonder you have achieved so much in life, given the many conflicting and unrealistic expectations attached to you from conception, onward. 1 2
You are only a couple years older than I am, and in that span of time you’ve made lasting and positive impacts on humankind:
- Without you, it’s unlikely we would already have a continuously occupied (10+ years) space vehicle in orbit that approaches the size, crew complement and utility of the International Space Station (ISS). Space stations don’t require a shuttle, of course, as we learned from Mir; however, comparing the Mir and the ISS is like comparing Space Shuttle orbiters to, well, trucks.
- Without you, we would likely know far less about the physiological and psychological effects of long-duration spaceflight on human beings and, to a lesser extent, other lifeforms. Our scientific community would keenly feel the lack of a large, fully staffed laboratory from which to perform scientific research in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
- Without you, we might not have our “eye to the universe,” the Hubble Space Telescope; even if it had launched via another vehicle, it’s unlikely we would have been able to service it twice on orbit without your capable assistance.
In the past 39 years, your Shuttles have inspired, educated and challenged us in innumerable ways; facilitated many “firsts”; and celebrated so many milestones. You are not perfect, but your eventual replacement(s) will not be either, and we humans haven’t learned a thing if we deny that fundamental fact in the years and decades ahead.
As a talented friend of mine so eloquently explains in her song, Bake Sale for NASA:
“Humans are best when we’re trying to test our limits and find we have more. The more that we learn, the less that we know, so further on still we must go, to answer the questions that, in the past, we didn’t even know to ask.” – CraftLass
I have no doubt that the next vehicles to take humans into Low Earth Orbit and beyond will be inspiring and beneficial, perhaps in ways we have not yet imagined. That said, it’s important that you remain as beacons of what came before. A new generation of space pioneers will look at your Shuttle orbiters and the supporting hardware, and marvel at it, just as I marveled at Apollo-era museum pieces.
Museum pieces… yeah, that hurts me to read, too. Sorry, bud. I love you and appreciate all you’ve done. All the best in your coming retirement (please relocate to Houston so I can visit, OK?) :)
– Shannon Moore (@ageekmom)
PostScript: I realize the Space Shuttle Program itself celebrated a birthday today, not the individual orbiters. I was just having a bit of fun, while at the same time tipping my hat to all the things Space Shuttle missions have brought us. I will genuinely miss the Space Shuttle Program when the orbiters officially retire.
For anyone who feels as I do, here are the official NASA tribute posters, one for each of the flown Space Shuttle orbiters:
- Space Shuttle Atlantis tribute poster
- Space Shuttle Challenger tribute poster
- Space Shuttle Columbia tribute poster
- Space Shuttle Discovery tribute poster
- Space Shuttle Endeavour tribute poster
Be sure to listen to this wonderful song by Dennis Lohaus, a 31+ year engineer involved in the Shuttle program – “Majestic Shuttle – A Tribute to the Shuttle Team and Astronauts” (iTunes & Amazon)
and watch this Shuttle Workforce Tribute Video by Dan Keenan and Kenny McLaughlin.
- “Dr. Werner Von Braun – “The Spaceplane that can put YOU in orbit”,” Popular Science, July 1970. ↩
- “Space Shuttle design process,” Wikipedia, Accesssed January 5, 2011. ↩