Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Today is a special anniversary. 45 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin launched into Space to become the first human to orbit Earth. 20 years later - 25 years ago today, John Young and Robert Crippen flew Space Shuttle Columbia on the first of its 28 flights into space during the first flight of the Space Shuttle program. While I was too young to remember Gagarin's flight, that flight spurred President Kennedy to challenge the United States to fly men to the Moon.

I remember clearly the day 25 years ago when Columbia launched. I had watched the roll out of Columbia the previous December and saw the two astronauts there next to the VAB at the Kennedy Space Center as Columbia crawled slowly out of the VAB on its way to Launch Complex 39A about 3 miles away. On April 12, 1981, I watched on a color TV with a camera set up to take stills and a tape recorder to record the launch. Having seen Saturn V launches on TV before, I wasn't sure what to expect of a Shuttle launch. It had been a long 6 years since the last launch of a United States manned spacecraft. With a delay in the launch two days earlier, I watched in great anticipation for this attempt. The Shuttle looked odd with the orbiter strapped to the side of a white painted external tank and a pair of solid rocket bosters flanking the sides of the tank. As the countdown reached T-7 seconds, I saw ignition of the main engines and a blast of yellow and blue flame spreading into a white exhaust plume as the count continued to zero. At zero, the SRBs lit and the shock of the brilliant SRB exhaust plume was stunning. Unlike the old Saturn V launches where the rocket took what seemed like forever to clear the tower and climb out, the shuttle did not dilly dally - it literally lept off the launch pad. I was very impressed. It was an exciting 8 minutes as we watched and then listened as the shuttle climbed into orbit. The next two days were fascinating and worrying. The shuttle had lost a couple tiles, but when it successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base on the dry lakebed two days later, we were reassured that the whole system worked almost flawlessly.

25 years later, we've watched more than 100 successful space shuttle flights doing some very remarkable things such as deploying satellites, retrieving and repairing satellites, docking with space stations and carrying out a lot of very interesting science experiments. Unfortunately, we've also watched in horror as two shuttle accidents took the lives of 14 brave astronauts. The shuttle has never quite lived up to the original billing of nearly weekly flights to orbit and cheap access to space. By the time its design was being turned into hardware, it is clear from this vantage point 25 years after its first flight that it could never achieve those goals. As the time for its retirement approaches, we can look back on the Shuttle's legacy and admire the machine despite its flaws and look forward to a future in spaceflight that will build on the Shuttle legacy and learn from both the successes and the failures.