Goodbye to the Shuttle

March 7, 2011


Discovery is coming home for the final time.

The space shuttle is scheduled to land on Wednesday. And then it will be Earth-bound, the first of the three remaining shuttles to retire to life as a museum relic. Endeavour’s last mission is in April, and then the space shuttle programme will end with Atlantis around the end of June (it’s actually scheduled to launch on my birthday: June 28th).

Can you tell I’m a little nostalgic?

The space shuttle programme is old. In fact, I think it’s the longest-running programme; Columbia first lifted off in 1981. There have been improvements and modifications to the shuttle since then, but the basic design has now seen thirty years of service. That’s not bad, considering how fast other technology seems to be springing into existence and then going obsolete.

I’ll admit to having a soft spot for the shuttles, particularly Endeavour. I think part of the reason is that unlike NASA’s other manned spacecraft, the shuttles are reusable. Over time, each individual vehicle gains a unique history. There’s Discovery: the oldest remaining shuttle, the ship with which NASA returned to flight after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Atlantis: the quiet workhorse of the fleet. And Endeavour: the young upstart… and the ship which has lent its name and image to a full-scale mock-up which forms the centre of life at Space Camp Canada.

Logically, I have to concede that the space shuttle, as useful as it is, could not fly forever. After the construction of the International Space Station is complete, there will be less need for what some have deemed a “space U-Haul” (for the sake of brevity, I will refrain from going on at length as to why that name is unfair… I’ll just say, “Hubble launch and servicing! Releasing the Galileo satellite! Various experiments!”). Furthermore, the Challenger and Columbia disasters prove that there are issues with the space shuttle’s design… again, the technology and designs are aging. We’ve explored the area immediately outside Earth; perhaps it is time to return to the Moon, to set our sights even beyond that. And to accomplish that, we do need a different vehicle.

Unfortunately, that vehicle is nowhere to be seen on the horizon. There is some talk about a “miniature” shuttle, but it doesn’t seem to be a manned vehicle. The Ares programme supposed to return astronauts to the Moon seems to have stalled. The fact is, at the moment, we do not have the technology to accomplish a lunar mission. And after the shuttles are decommissioned, the United States will not have manned spacecraft of any description.

Which is why I wish that the shuttles’ retirement had been postponed until there was a replacement ready; a sort of bridge period, if you will. I know the cost of maintaining an aging fleet, combined with the cost of developing new spacecraft, might have proved prohibitive, but… well, I suppose it’s the idealist in me talking.

But nevertheless. I will dearly miss the space shuttles… and the era of space exploration that goes into the history books with them.



  1. We have the technology for a lunar mission, we just don’t have the money.Because we spend it on wars.
    I remember the first start of the columbis and it’s landing. What a great moment.

  2. […] a related post:  Goodbye to the Shuttle (Intergalactic […]

  3. It does seem the end of an era, of sorts. All things must pass.

  4. I was fortunate enough to see Discovery’s Final Launch and it was one of the biggest highlights of my life. It was amazing to watch it lift off into space!

    The idealist in me feels the same way! Space exploration is about discovering and learning about the cosmos.

  5. The Space Shuttle was the first program of NASA that I was conscious of, so I’m with you on the feeling of nostalgia. Alas, I do have to recognize that the shuttle was never the vehicle that it could have been, thanks to Congressional cuts before it was launched for the first time. We seem to be on the verge of commercial travel to low Earth orbit, though. What I fear is that we’ll give up on anything more distant, thanks to the expense and the danger. How will we ever get to the stars if we are too timid to go back even to the Moon?

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