Space Shuttle from Both Sides of History
My wife, Erika, texted me while sitting in traffic on the Mopac Expressway (the latter part of that highway’s name being very wishful thinking) while on her way to work the other day here in Austin saying that the Space Shuttle had just flown over at low altitude on the back of a 747 (see photos of the flight here). It’s not the kind of thing you see every day.
I was working and, even though the flight path was within three miles of my office, I never saw it. I got the text too late, but on Facebook lots of my Austin friends who work downtown saw it and snapped pics on their phones, some of them pretty good ones, too. For those of us who remember the Shuttle program from start to finish, watching reports as Endeavor made its way across the country, city to city, the Boeing jumbo jet carrying the Shuttle on its back, a journey to a viewing place, where flight is not on the itinerary. It’s a bittersweet thing.
When I was in my early 20s living in Southern California I saw the same picture, a Shuttle, Columbia, in fact, just on the other side of history, piggyback atop a 747 making its way home from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, near my home. I was in awe watching the tandem planes, chased by a pair of snow white NASA T-38s, Joshua trees and desert peaks around them all, as they maneuvered on the departure to climb east. That was my neighborhood, and it all made sense in 1981.
Back then the Shuttle represented our continued pathway into space, and it was an ingenious concept. It was, for all intents and purposes, an airplane that could go to space and then glide back home, to be used again and again as we literally “shuttled” our way back and forth to space.
If it ever sounded like an economical approach to space, it wasn’t. It was, indeed, so bold that nobody would dare propose such a thing today. It was only in the afterglow of the Apollo program and our exploration of the Moon that such a thing seemed doable at all. The costs were enormous. The entire program is estimated to have cost $160 billion, and each mission rang the register to the tune of around $1.5 billion. A budget balancer it wasn’t.
With the flight of Endeavor to its final museum home in Los Angeles last week, the era is over. What new era will emerge to take its place remains to be seen. There will surely be more robotic exploration of space. The unfathomable distances, fantastic risk and staggering cost of supporting manned exploration of deep space makes Mars, perhaps, a destination, perhaps even in my lifetime, if I live a long, long time.
The Shuttle was part of that journey to space, one that helped define who I was as a pilot (for I was a pilot in my heart from around the time I could walk) but also as human being, looking out and seeing where we were in the Universe and yearning to see what lies just beyond. For three decades, the Shuttle was our billion-dollar taxi to the stars. It will remain so in my heart.