21 July 2011

Thirty years ago . . .

. . . I was finishing my senior year at the University of California. The space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage on April 12th and I was awarded my B.S. degree on June 13th. Columbia broke up over Texas during re-entry on January 16, 2003. That was its 28th flight. Sister ship Challenger, launched on April 4th, 1983, was lost at the start of only its 10th mission on January 28, 1986. Atlantis, first launched on October 3rd, 1985, touched down at Cape Canaveral early this morning, closing the door on the entire shuttle program. It was the 33rd trip for Atlantis. The newest member of the fleet, Endeavour, was first launched on May 7th, 1992, and completed its 25th and final voyage on June 1st, 2011. Workhorse Discovery made 39 flights between August 30th, 1984, and March 9th, 2011. I remember talk at the time of Columbia's debut was that each shuttle would be capable of 100 missions. Although NASA fell short of that optimistic prediction, thirty years of performance from such a complex machine subject to such demanding conditions is still an impressive accomplishment. If you want to do pure science, satellites, robots, and unmanned probes are much better than human-filled spaceships. If you want to explore, you need people. I hope NASA can continue to do both.

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