I remember as a 14-year-old boy waking up early on a Sunday morning, April 14, 1981, to sit in front of my parent’s television and watch history unfold.
Since watching the test trials of the space shuttle back in the 1970s — when they would take the orbiter up on the back of the 747 and let it go so it could land — I had been engrossed in the whole shuttle program.
But more than being something fascinating, the shuttle also proved to be something of a bookmark in my life.
That first launch was tedious, that much I do recall. Sitting there for hours as the clock counted down, ABC News covering every little aspect of the event, I remember thinking this is just the beginning — some day we’ll all be able to travel to space.
Well, that was a little miscalculation on my part, but the first launch was the beginning of a long interest I had in the space shuttle. In those early years I watched every launch live, I read up about the missions and the astronauts manning the orbiter as it hurled into space. I remember owning a book which told all about the space shuttle and what it could do.
The shuttle fascinated me. Having grown up in the days of the original Star Wars movies, this was the real thing to me (minus the lasers and light speed) and if you followed it you could see this was something educational — but fun.
The fun ended Jan. 28, 1986, however, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded several minutes into its launch.
It was one of those “I remember where I was” moments, much like earlier generations could recall where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was killed. I was on the ramp from I-475 to I-69 returning home from morning classes at Mott Community College when I heard about the accident. At first I thought it was a nutty DJ’s crude joke, but it turned out to be serious. All seven astronauts, including school teacher Christa
McAuliffe, died in the tragedy.
For some time after the shuttle program was grounded. I remember some people saying it was too dangerous to go back up again. I started to wonder if manned spaceflight was dead too. But the shuttle rebounded, teaching us all a lesson on not giving up despite adversity.
Of course there was to be another shuttle accident many years later — the loss of Columbia in February 2003. Those losses were tragic, but the men and women who died did so while pursuing their dreams. The shuttle program has taught us much about science, it has allowed us opportunities to develop technology and to do what humans do best — to explore.
It has also been a constant in our lives these past 30 years, something that became so mainstream we forgot sometimes it was there. With hard times upon us right now and a soaring debt to contend with, I doubt manned space missions will resume for the U.S. any time soon.
Hopefully corporate America will pick up the torch and continue to keep us soaring into space for years to come so future generations can also be inspired to excel in school and to have dreams about what lies beyond this world.