CacheCrazy.Com: End of an Era

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

End of an Era

A Chapter in American history nears its finish...

Sunday, April 12, 1981. I was 7 years old. My Dad woke my brother and me up early that morning so we could witness a part of history. At 7:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, Space Shuttle Columbia – STS-1 – rocketed from the Kennedy Space Center launch pad, and American human space flight officially resumed after a six year hiatus. It was a mission of firsts. The first shuttle launch, yes, but also the first manned vehicle launched with this type of propulsion system, the first spacecraft to be landed like a conventional aircraft, and the first reusable orbiter. It was the birth of a 30-year program, immense national pride, and something I would later realize I had witnessed from its conception to its end.

So it was with some sadness last Wednesday that I watched Space Shuttle Discovery touch down for the very last time. Upside down and backwards relative to the Earth, her thrusters were fired to increase drag. Eventually gravity took over and the spacecraft dropped from orbit. At that point, she couldn’t have turned around even if she wanted. From 200-odd miles up and literally half the world away, Discovery began her descent to eastern Florida. An orbital velocity of 17,000 miles per hour. To zero. One last time.

The now-retired Discovery has flown more missions than any of the other shuttles and was used for many of NASA’s landmark moments. It was the ship used to launch the Hubble Telescope, and, of the five service missions to the Hubble, it was used for two of them. Because the Hubble orbits higher than the International Space Station, Discovery also holds the altitude record over any of the other shuttles, a mind-boggling 385 miles or so above the Earth. For comparison, the ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude anywhere between 173 and 286 miles with an average of 264 miles.

In my mind, the shuttle program has been a great success, but it hasn’t been without tragedy. The complexities and dangers of human space flight are very real. I mention the two shuttle disasters as a stark reminder of the risks these women and men take and to serve as a tribute to their dedication and their work.

I vividly remember January 28, 1986. The sixth grade teachers already knew the story. They scrambled to set up a television in the classroom as a bunch of confused students tried to decipher their concern. When the news came on the screen, we then learned what happened. As Space Shuttle Challenger launched on an unusually cold Florida day, a faulty O-ring was allowing hydrogen to escape. When the propulsion fuel ignited, Challenger and her crew were lost only 73 seconds into flight. It was a numbing experience to witness with my silent classmates. Our teachers stood stoically, trying to explain, trying to make sense. I’m sure it was especially surreal for them, as one of their colleagues and peers, a fellow teacher, was part of that crew. Later, President Reagan comforted a grieving nation with words that will always touch those that remember that day so well – “(They) waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to go touch the face of God.”

I vividly recall February 1, 2003. I was traveling that day and listening to the news on the radio. As Space Shuttle Columbia was reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, its frame melted away due to a missing heat shield tile. Columbia – the first shuttle ever in orbit – disintegrated. Her crew – so close to completing the journey – perished. President Bush explained it to the American people – “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
I am not a rocket scientist, an astronomer, or a pilot, but I have always had more than just a passing interest in the Space Shuttle program. It was engrained in us. It was part of our lives. It played a role in our education. Until that April morning three decades ago, space travel was something I only ever saw in a movie or a beat up history book or a grainy old news clip. With the American space program now at a crossroads, this will likely be the case again for our youth well into the foreseeable future.

With that thought in mind, I want to encourage everyone to enjoy the shuttle program before it finally comes to an end. If you are standing in darkness and the orbiter is in sunlight, it is actually very easy to see with the naked eye. This is an excellent way to be a “part” of the mission. As you watch the sky, prepare yourself to be amazed. It is… well… it is out of this world. For viewing opportunities in your area, see the NASA website:
http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/realdata/sightings/index.html

There are two flights remaining. Space Shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to liftoff next month. Space Shuttle Atlantis will launch in June.

And that will be it.

17,000 mph to zero.

One last time.

Will you be watching?






"To the ship that has led the way time and time again, we say, 'Farewell Discovery.'”
- Mission Control commentator Josh Byerly
(http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/iotd.html)

2 comments:

BigAl said...

Wow! The memories that those dates bring back are phenomenal. I remember each one of them so vividly; this truly is the End of an Era. It's hard to believe that after these flights they will be no more. We've watched them take off, and we've watched them land. It's truly amazing that this could even be done. But then that is what man does; he's always creating something to go somewhere. I only wonder what the future holds for space travel and beyond. Only time will tell. Thanks for the reminder of an Era that really means a lot to people of all nations. We all mourn the loss that was experienced through the tragedies that took place. Our hearts and prayers still go out to those families. I too hope many people watch those last flights with their children and explain the impact that space travel has had on all of us. Thanks for an amazing article.

BLOODHOUNDED said...

Out of this world article Dodger! Great work my friend….
To tie in Geocacheing, GC1BE91 International Space Station cache was placed on 10/14/2008 by Richard Garriott. It has only been found once and is currently on 2,178 geocachers watch list including Bloodhounded’s. N 45 57.309 E 063 21.017 are the coords which puts it 5,913.1 miles away from me right now but it will get closer and someday, just maybe, so will I. Today only the American Space Shuttle and a Russian Soyuz can even reach the ISS. If you go, remember to move along the ISS travel bug. I can remember the shuttles first landing, the world watched in awe as our American space program did the unthinkable, they landed a space ship! Wow!

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