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The End of the Space Shuttle Era
Thursday, 2011 July 28 - 8:42 pm
When I was 11 years old, I was utterly fascinated by everything to do with outer space. I'd grown up reading books about the Apollo moon missions, books about quasars, and anything else space-related I could get my hands on.

When I heard that the U.S. was building a highly advanced reusable spacecraft, a ship like nothing we'd ever seen before, my mind was blown. A spaceship with wings? That could fly back to earth and then be used again? It was like science fiction.

When Columbia launched for the first time, I was mesmerized. I drew a picture to commemorate the event (click to see it full size):

Columbia Space Shuttle

That picture was on my bedroom wall until I was in college. Afterwards my mother kept this picture for decades. A few weeks ago, after I'd mentioned something about it on Facebook, she dug up the picture and sent it to me.

The first thing that made me laugh was that the yellowing of the paper made it painfully obvious where I'd used Liquid Paper to cover up some mistakes:

Liquid Paper

The second thing that made me laugh was that apparently I was still very much into celebrating the bicentennial:

Spirit of 1976

But mostly, I was thrilled to recover this bit of my childhood, this memento of something that was so important to me at the time.

The shuttle turned out to be a mixed blessing for the U.S. space program. On the one hand, it was a technological marvel, with its giant payload capacity and its fancy robotic arm. But on the other hand, it was horrifically expensive; each mission cost ten times the amount originally planned, and instead of the 50 launches per year that were envisioned, NASA only managed 135 over a 30-year span.

In this age of austerity, the U.S. government finally decided that it could no longer spend half a billion dollars for every launch. So, the shuttle program has been discontinued; the shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time a week ago. The future of the U.S. space program is now somewhat in doubt: the immediate plans seem to hinge on old-school rockets as launch vehicles, along with whatever private industry might come up with. There's some longer-term chatter about a manned mission to an asteroid or even to Mars, but it's hard to be optimistic about that.

It's a bit sad to see that something that was so inspirational to me as a kid is gone. I worry that 11-year-old kids today get their knowledge of space travel from Hollywood 3-D blockbusters, instead of experiencing the pure wonderment of real space exploration. What pictures do today's 11-year-olds draw? Transformers and blue aliens?

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