It was a clear October morning in the Mojave Desert twenty-three years ago when I got to see Discovery touch down at Edwards Air Force Base. This was the first Space Shuttle flight in over two years after the Challenger disaster in January of 1986. The landing area was packed with spectators and well-wishers, and the general feeling was one of great relief when the big bird came down without a hitch. I was there when Challenger came down on her final landing in November of 1985. There was hardly anyone in the big lake bed parking area at the time. No one had any inkling it would be Challenger's last successful mission. Space travel is inherently dangerous, but the regularity of the program's success lulled us into believing it could be routine. It took another disaster, the terrible break-up of Columbia over Texas on its return flight to Canaveral in 2003 to remind us once again that this sort of thing is risky--very risky. You can have all the best scientists, engineers, and technicians and still lose a payload, a rocket, or a crew. I like to say that the first rule of the universe is that "Nature f----s with you." And that the second rule is "People can't do much about Rule No. 1."
Discovery will fly no more. She came down on Wednesday having flown 39 times since 1984 and having logged 148 million miles. Endeavour is set for an April launch, and Atlantis for June. That's it for the Space Shuttle after three decades. That will be a sad day for me, as I've been a fan of humans in space since I was a boy following the Apollo missions. The real exploration of the final frontier is done better by satellites and robots--one only has to look at the pictures from Cassini and Opportunity to know that. But humans are explorers, and will continue to explore space from their rockets and spaceships. The ISS is still up there, still working, and still filled with explorers. Let's not forget about them.
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