by Luke Forney
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
—John F. Kennedy
On Thursday, July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center, officially bringing NASA’s manned space shuttle program to a close.
NASA, formed in 1958 (as NACA: National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) to compete with the Soviet Union’s Sputnik series of satellites, began its ascent to greatness most prominently with the Mercury missions, the first to put Americans in space, launching greats such as Alan Shepard and John Glenn. Gemini pushed the American space program forward, working to prepare for NASA’s eventual trip to the moon. After the success of this program, begun with Gemini 3, NASA hit its pinnacle with the Apollo missions.
The first manned mission in this new program was Apollo 7. Yet, it was with Apollo 1 that the true cost of man’s quest for the moon was brought home. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were participating in a test in the command module when a fire started. All three astronauts died in fire, in what turned out to be a series of lethal design flaws in the original command module build. Apollo 1 never flew, while Apollo 2 through Apollo 6 were unmanned. Finally, in October 1968, Apollo 7, featuring Apollo 1’s backup crew, put man back into space. The success of Apollo 7, despite the crew conflicts that led to all three astronauts never going to space again, reignited confidence in manned missions after the Apollo 1 tragedy, and paved the way for lunar landing.
John F. Kennedy’s call for men on the moon was a path continued under Richard M. Nixon, who was President when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on the moon. It took four days for Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to leave Earth, travel to the moon, and land. Four days for one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Human’s had left Earth, landed on another celestial body, and would return safely. Mankind could finally, after millennia of existence, reach the stars they had looked up at for so long.
If only it had lasted.
Apollo missions continued, taking more people to the moon. In the mid-‘70s, NASA sent up Skylab, which hosted three crews, before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and crashing down in 1979. During Skylab’s time in the sky, the United States and Russia teamed up for the first time on a space mission, the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, which ended the Apollo missions.
NASA decided to focus its efforts on its space shuttle program, and in 1981 launched the first shuttle, Columbia. Only five years later, in 1986, space shuttle Challenger disintegrated less than a minute and a half into its flight, killing all seven people aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher participating in the Teachers in Space Project. Only in 2007, 21 years after the Challenger disaster, Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe’s backup, become the first “teacher in space.”
After nearly three years without a space shuttle mission following the Challenger, NASA resumed the shuttle project. However, national interest had begun to decline following the end of the Apollo missions and the Challenger disaster, and most of the missions received little fanfare as NASA headed into the ‘90s.
1998 saw NASA’s next big project. Teaming with the Russian space program, NASA began work on the International Space Station, a project that, over a decade later, is nearing completion. A center for scientific experimentation, the ISS is a crowning achievement for the cooperation of mankind in its efforts for studying and exploring space. However, the dwindling interest in NASA’s space shuttle program continued, only getting a burst of media buzz in 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
Eight years later, space shuttle Atlantis lands, and ends the space shuttle program, along with any NASA-based manned space flights. The final flight didn’t even break into the major news stories of the day, and NASA’s space shuttle missions truly went out with a whimper, if even that.
As science fiction fans, space exploration is a fantasy turned reality, and manned space flight was that fantasy at its greatest. Man’s thrust into space is something that can transcend national borders, and unite all of humanity together behind a common goal and a common purpose. With the termination of manned space flight through NASA, many of these dreams for the future have been stunted and cut off. Perhaps, with continued unmanned space flight, mostly outsourced, and with the beginnings of commercial space flight, as well as growing space programs in other countries, manned exploration of space won’t take too large of a hit, but one can’t help but feel that, with this chapter of closing in the annals of NASA, the group that put man on the moon for the first time, some vital will be missing.
As the plaque on Apollo 11’s lunar module states, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
In honor of the 28 astronauts who were awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, 17 of which were presented posthumously: Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, John Young, Thomas P. Stafford, Jim Lovell, Shannon Lucid, Roger Chaffee, Edward White, William Shepard, Rick D. Husband, Willie McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon, Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, and Robert Crippen. And to all those worldwide who died to send humanity to the stars.