Saturday, July 23, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Millions of Americans followed the space shuttle Atlantis’ final mission this week, which was the last of the 30-year-old shuttle program. Atlantis touched down early Thursday in Florida and was showered with accolades.
The attention was well deserved. The shuttle’s career was remarkable — in 135 missions, space shuttle crews conducted hundreds of experiments, launched numerous satellites and built the International Space Station. Shuttle crews have deployed and repaired the Hubble telescope, which has advanced understanding of the universe.
Not all was perfect. NASA lost two shuttles and their crews in tragic accidents — the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003. Despite those disasters and the inherent danger involved, one of the most remarkable legacies of the program is that it made space travel seem like no big deal. Many missions came and went with little notice.
Much has changed since the start of the nation’s space program, when the country was in rapt attention as we raced into space against the Soviet Union, our Cold War rival. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy called for the United States to put a man on the moon within a decade. That was a huge challenge, particularly since the Soviet Union had been leading the race into space.
But the United States responded and within the decade American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon.
The next major challenge for NASA was to create a reusable spacecraft that could take cargo into space and land like a plane. In 1981, a dozen years after Armstrong’s lunar stroll, the first shuttle launched into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and returned to a runway in California a couple of days later.
In the years since, the Cold War ended, and the Russians have been partners in space and will now ferry Americans to the space station.
The cancellation of the shuttle program by the George W. Bush administration has left private companies, which have long played a major role in the space program, building a new generation of spacecraft. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a former shuttle commander, said the agency will use those spacecraft to continue the human exploration of space when they are completed in the coming years.
In the meantime, NASA is continuing its work through other means, from satellites to probes such as the Mars rover. However, with the lack of a major program or a new challenge, there will be a lull in public attention, and it would be a shame to see people lose interest in space.
The space program has encouraged the nation to explore and opened up discoveries about the universe and how it works. It has played an important role in the nation, pacing technology and innovation. It wasn’t all that long ago that people were amazed with what was billed as “Space Age” technology, but now it is common. An iPhone was aboard Atlantis for its final flight.
After setting Atlantis down on the runway Thursday, mission commander Chris Ferguson well summed up the shuttle’s legacy.
“The space shuttle’s changed the way we view the world and it’s changed the way we view our universe,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion today but one thing’s indisputable: America’s not going to stop exploring.”
Let’s hope not.