Friday, May 14, 2010


Today, the space shuttle Atlantis was launched for the last time. Once again, I watched the spectacle from my front yard. There was a great deal of sadness this time, though, because this is the third to last shuttle mission. It's hard to believe that there will only be two more launches before the books are closed on this glorious chapter in our history.

It was with great excitement and a deep sense of patriotism that I watched the space shuttle Columbia launch on April 12, 1981. I was just a child then, and my school suspended classes to allow us to watch the launch on tv. I knew I was witnessing history, and I was filled with pride that my country did this wonderful thing.  Only a few things have ever made me as proud of my country as that wondrous event.

I wasn't one of those kids who saw the launch and wanted to be an astronaut - I suffer from vertigo on a level with John "Scottie" Ferguson, so space travel has never been a major draw for me. But I was so incredibly proud to be an American as I watched that shuttle soar into history. It was a watershed moment for our country; a pinnacle of American ingenuity and can-do attitude.

As an American, I have taken great pride in the space shuttle program. As a central Florida resident, whenever there was a launch, I made sure to run outside and watch at T minus 30 and counting. It is thrilling to see the bright orange-red flames of the rockets blazing throught the sky, white vapor trail tracing an arc through the wild blue yonder Night launches are truly things of beauty. And the double sonic booms when the landing flight path went over our house were an exciting and fun reminder of the greatness of our nation.

What other country can boast a space program like ours? We may not have been the first into space, but we sure have kicked some international space-race butt since then, haven't we?

Unfortunately, the shuttle program is ending this year. Today's launch was the last for Shuttle Atlantis. There are only two more launches scheduled - Discovery on Sept. 16, 2010, and Endeavour in mid-November.

The next phase for NASA was supposed to be the Constellation program, where the Bush administration and NASA had planned to go back to the moon, eventually establish a base camp there, and then on to Mars. President Obama, however, cut the funding for the program in his 2011 budget, citing private industry as taking up the slack. The budget has not been passed as of yet, so funding is still in question, but Obama has indicated that the Orion capsule will be sent up, unmanned, to the space station as a sort of lifeboat or escape pod for future American astronauts. How will they get up to the space station in the first place, without a shuttle? Hitching a ride with Russia, to the tune of $55.8 million per astronaut.

As a kid who grew up in the '80's, the end of the shuttle program is a sad prospect indeed. The fact that we will now be reliant on the Russians to get us into space is nothing short of mind-boggling for someone who grew up during the Cold War. While they are far from the "evil empire" of the 1950's through the '80's, they are still not exactly what could be called a close ally. Forfeiting our place in the space industry and having to rely on the very country we have been competing against for all these years just doesn't seem right, somehow.

After thirty years of the shuttle program, it was time to move on to the next phase of space exploration. There was a great deal of sadness over the end of the shuttle missions, but the upcoming Constellation program helped mitigate that sorrow with it's promise of future space exploration. The fact that the end of the shuttle program is now, effectively, the end of our dominance in space comes at a difficult time for our country.

Many Americans are feeling as though they are losing their country; that it is being transformed into something far different from the vibrant, innovative world leader it has been for decades. The loss of our shuttle program, a defining symbol of our benign power and scientific excellence, signifies, to some, the sun setting on our superpower status.

With a little luck, in 2012 a new president will reinstate the Constellation program and we will regain our standing in the space industry and start making giant leaps for mankind once more. In the meantime, all we can do is watch the skies when our shuttles launch on their last remaining flights and savor the pride they instill in us.

Farewell, Atlantis. Thank you for your years of service, thank you for the advancements your teams of scientists, engineers and astronauts gave the world, and thank you for the pride and glory you instilled in our country.

Cross Posted at the Ripley Report



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