Friday, July 22, 2011

Farewell space shuttle program, we shall miss you!

The safe landing of shuttle Atlantis marked the end of an impressive spacecraft. To think that the shuttle was designed as a follow up to the Apollo missions in the late 1970s is impressive. With modern advances in aerospace technology, I can only imagine what the future will hold. (I hope there is a replacement!)

A Brief History

The Mercury project proved the rockets to safely launch man into orbit, as well as the systems to track and safely recover both astronaut and capsule. Project Gemini, with two men aboard, tested man's ability to work and endure long periods in space, and illuminated the complexities of orbital mechanics. These missions paved the way for Project Apollo, which culminated in several successful moon landings.

Having "won" the space race, NASA set its sights on a different goal, a reusable spacecraft. Each Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft was one-use only. This was an expensive approach. Can you imagine buying a new car everytime you need to make a long car trip? The space shuttle concept embraced the reusable philosophy that is commonplace today.

Unlike spacecraft of the era, the space shuttle looked like a conventional aircraft. US and Soviet (now Russia) spacecraft designs that evolved during the space race relied on a capsule to launch astronauts into orbit. And the modern day Chinese space capsule is similar in design to the present Russian Soyuz. But the space shuttle was unique in that it took off like a rocket and landed like a plane.

And over the span of 30 years, many successes were quietly celebrated, but the loss of two craft and crew were loudly mourned. I remember exactly where I was during the Challenger and Colombia disasters. Lessons were learned the hard way. It was a wake up call and a reminder that there's nothing routine about spaceflight. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but we moved forward. We're Americans, it's what we do.

Watching a Magical Shuttle Launch

On an early April morning morning in 2010, my new bride and I were taking portraits at Disney's Magic Kingdom Park. (We were married a few days earlier. It was awesome!) While standing atop the castle, I turned around to see the shuttle ascending into the dark morning sky. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera, but I'll never forget the image. And my new wife held my hand, knowing how important it was for me to see it. What a great way to start a marriage!

I checked off two items on my bucket list that weekend (wife and shuttle).

-Dr. Dave

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