The earth shook. Even the air seemed to rumble. That first shuttle ascended amid such a terrible inferno that the Herald reporter assigned to record the atmospherics could only stand there, a gape-mouthed idiot, forgetting why he had bothered to bring a pen and notebook to Titusville that morning.
My wits were knocked asunder. The thought that human beings could survive inside that white hot fireball just wouldn’t compute. And the only quote I managed to retrieve during those first few moments of blastoff was judged unfit for a family newspaper.
A beery, beefy, biker-looking fellow next to me had yelled out a spontaneous, crude (by 1981 standards) assessment of the courage required to hitch a ride aboard the blazing Columbia. “Them guys got.” Then came call a word analogous to testicles. He also referenced watermelons. At 7 a.m., April 12, 1981, as the 219,256 pounds blasted out of gravity’s grip, the stunned reporter on the bank of the Indian River thought he had the perfect quote. My editors, not so brash (not of the melon variety, in my estimation) disagreed.
The launch provided the most terrific spectacle I’ve ever seen. That November, I was at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert stunned once again by Columbia as it left an intermittent vapor trail, like white stitching across the sky, and glided from Mach 24 to a silent, perfect landing on the sandy flats. That second mission, planned for five days, had been cut short by a failed fuel cell. The shuttle arrived in California after just two days and six hours, which should have told me something but I was still caught up in the show, the spectacle, the romance of manned space flight.
Amid the descriptive flourishes, I’d weave in NASA’s promises that America was witnessing the creation of a truly utilitarian space transportation system. Compared to our previous ventures, the stumpy shuttle, not a very sexy-looking aircraft, would be relatively cheap to fly, would offer quick turnarounds for the next flights. The shuttles, with their hefty cargo bays, would be hauling stuff into space every week. Being from West Virginia, I favored the term “space truck.”
And it would be safe. I vaguely remember some NASA flak putting the chances of an accident at one in 100,000.
Thirty years later, as the last shuttle mission circles the globe, I know now that the most accurate thing about those old stories was the quote I couldn’t get in the newspaper. Shuttle flights, as it turned out, cost about $1.4 billion a launch. Those quick once-a-week turnarounds weren’t so quick. Some 1,572 weeks later, the shuttle program has just now launched the 135th and last mission.
The odds of a terrible accident, it turned out, were two chances in 135. I was in Houston, on a sunny January day in 1986, to cover the memorial service for seven Challenger astronauts, lost because of something as niggling as a faulty O-ring. The town was stricken. The nation was stunned. We all learned that there was nothing routine or safe about these space craft, though NASA had pretended otherwise and added school teacher Christa McAuliffe to the Challenger crew to gin up some public interest in what had come to seem routine. The Teacher in Space Program had been designed get millions of school children to pay particular attention to the Challenger and Shuttle Mission 51L. In Houston, that day, I wondered about all those kids, what lesson they learned.
While we were spending billions to sustain the romance of manned space flight, cheaper unmanned robotic missions made landings on Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan and the asteroid Eros. Rovers have crawled across the desert landscapes of Mars. Our astro-gadgets have probed storm systems big enough to swallow the Earth as they were sweeping across Jupiter and have discovered giant plumes of water shooting out of another Saturn moon. Going far into space, without the need for food or air or medicine or psychological nurturing, without worried families back on earth, machines have snapped photographs of entire galaxies as they were devoured (several hundred million years ago) by black holes.
And on March 22, 2010, when the little rover called Spirit died on the surface of Mars, the loss did not send the nation into a fit of mourning or traumatized self-doubt. School children weren’t crying in their classrooms.
It’s been there for years, the logical future of space exploration, albeit one with less pizzazz than shuttle flights. Unmanned missions are economical, efficient, safe. Without fear, robots don’t much need that old right-stuff bravado. They’ve got the rational stuff.
Without the necessity of human courage, I suppose space travel loses the romance. The 1981 version of me wouldn’t have wasted an adjective writing about soulless space robots.
But the truth about sending human beings into space on those earth-shaking fireballs for 135 spectacular but very dangerous missions.... Well... that beery, beefy guy in Titusville back in 1981 had it right. Like watermelons.