Farewell To A Friend

Retiring the shuttle was the right thing to do.

I truly believed that. And still do.

Or, at least, that it was a right thing to do, and probably the more right thing to do.

After the loss of Columbia eight years ago today, something had to change.It’s really only been less than five years since the shuttle began flying regularly after that tragedy, and the smaller fleet has done a great job supporting that. But the shuttles are aging, and the fleet is smaller. That’s not to say that they couldn’t fly like this for some time to come, but eventually something would have to be done.

And continuing the shuttle program would have been option. Build, at great expense, an OV-106, a new orbiter from the old mold.  Or build an OV-201, developing from scratch a modern vehicle compatible with the classic shuttle infrastructure. Put the existing orbiters through major upgrades to extend their lifespan.

Or so something new.

And when the decision was made a few years ago to take that last option, I endorsed it as the right thing to do.

The shuttle has incredible capabilities. It will likely be a very long time before there’s another single vehicle with as much capability as the shuttle has. We could continue doing the things the shuttle lets us do for a long time.

But many of those capabilities are currently replicated elsewhere. Expendable rockets let us put satellites in orbit. The International Space Station lets us conduct science in space. Soyuz, for the near term, will let us put astronaut in orbit.

And for all those capabilities, one ability the shuttle does not give us is the ability to leave our planet. We’re confined slightly above our atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to do there. But there are plenty of other places to go as well. The loss of Columbia presented the nation with a choice — you have to make a decision, and either way, you have to do something. Do you keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you do something new?

I believe it’s time to do something new.

That said …

Having finished the manuscript of a book about the early years of the shuttle program, I’ll admit that last week I had this sudden dawning realization that, “oh, crap, there’s not going to be any more shuttle.”

I understood it, and was OK with it, from a technical perspective. As a space historian, educator and advocate, it’s the right thing to do.

From an emotional perspective … I guess I really hadn’t let myself thing about it from that perspective. You can’t let sentiment stand in the way of doing what’s right.

But, yeah, when I think about playing with shuttle toys as a kid, when I think about seeing the mock-ups at Space Camp while visiting the museum here, when I think about talking to astronauts that flew on it, when I think about following missions over the years, when I think about watching launches in the last couple of years, when I think about how much I’ve written about it over the past eight years at NASA, when I think about the book we just finished, it’s a little overwhelming.

I’m going to miss her.

And I know she’s not gone yet. Sometime later this year, I will write a post about the last flight of the space shuttle program. And it will be done. And that’s a little overwhelming, too. But that’s not this post. It’s not done yet.

This post is to say, it’s coming, but it’s not here yet. Three more launches are still scheduled.

Don’t take them for granted. Watch the launches. If possible, make your way to Florida for lift-off. Follow the missions. Watch the landings.

While you can.