April 12th is a day of many anniversaries. This year, many of those anniversaries have even come in tens. 150 years ago today, the first shots were fired in the Civil War, pitting brother against brother in a battle for the very fiber of a nation. 50 years ago today, the first human left earth and entered space, starting a race between our nation and another that did a lot to better the human race and international cooperation. 33 years ago today, my wife was born! (Happy Birthday Sweetie!). 30 years ago today, the first launch of the Space Transportation System occurred, propelling the United States and the world to a new level of space exploration.
Just over 57 years after humans’ first flight, we left our planet for the first time. Eight years, three months, and eight days later, men first stood on the moon.
On this day in 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia, commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young and piloted by rookie astronaut Robert Crippen launched from the same launch pad from which all of the visitors to the moon (including Young himself) had launched from. This launch was the first of the most successful manned launch vehicle in the history of space travel. At the end of the Space Shuttle program in just a few months, 135 missions will have flown on five different orbiters, carrying over 350 people of many different nationalities to space. The Space Shuttle was was designed to have many different capacities and has served as a research vehicle, a military transport vehicle, a materials supply ferry, and most of all as a vehicle carrying the dreams of anyone who wanted to get to space.
Some people grew up with Mercury, some with Gemini, some with Apollo. Most who were alive at the time can remember when men first landed and walked on the moon. I grew up with the Space Shuttle. Some of the days that will stay with me forever are January 28, 1986 when the Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch; Februrary 1, 2003, when then Columbia disintegrated in the final hour of its mission; and April 5, 2010, when I got to watch Discovery launch from KSC. These days are forever burned in my memory and I will never forget them.
The Space Shuttle is a utilitarian vehicle, designed by committee to fulfill many tasks. However in that utilitarian design comes a system of immense beauty. The Shuttle is the world’s only reusable spacecraft, launched like a rocket and landing like an airplane. With over 1,000,000 moving parts, it’s the most complicated vehicle ever made by humans. To date, there have been 131 successful flights out of 135 attempts, which is a 98.4% success rate. Out of over 350 people launched on the shuttle, only 14 have been lost.
The losses of STS-51L and STS-107 were tragic. The Challenger disaster (STS-51L) occurred nineteen years after the Apollo 1 fire. The loss of Columbia (STS-107) occurred 17 years after Challenger was lost. These disaster all had similar human causes, while their technical causes were very different. Each of these disasters taught us that complacency is a very dangerous thing and in high risk endeavors, it can cause the loss of life. Brian Bassett, creator of the Red & Rover cartoon strip, put it best in this drawing:
So today, on the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle program, I want to take the time to thank the countless thousands of people have devoted their lives to keeping the Shuttles flying. Whether your’e an astronaut, a trainer, a flight controller, a propellant tech, an NBL diver, a public affairs officer, or one of the thousands of other positions that have kept the shuttles flying for three decades, THANK YOU for all that you do and have done! The human race and our planet is better because of the work you’ve done!
As the final two Shuttle launches approach, think about how different the world is from how it was at the first flight thirty years ago. When the Shuttles retire, we will buy seats from the Russians to get our astronauts into orbit. There is a space station orbiting the earth once every 90 minutes with components built around the world and launched in to space from three different continents. Humans have had a continuous presence in space for over 10 years, working together for the betterment of the species and our planet as a whole.
Again turing to Mr. Basset’s comic strip, “What a ride it’s been!”