As I write this, Atlantis is streaking into space, having just lifted off the pad at Cape Canaveral – the final mission of the Space Shuttle program. I can hardly remember a time before the Space Shuttle. And though the program seemed to become routine over the years, with many of the 135 missions taking place only in the background of my consciousness, I do have many vivid and powerful Space Shuttle memories. I remember that the first Shuttles were painted completely white, fuel tank and all. I remember, as though it were yesterday, the freezing cold morning in 1986 when the Challenger launched, and I remember watching news coverage of the disaster in my third-grade classroom. I remember the return to space following Challenger. I remember some amazing night launches, which, even from my vantage point in west-central Florida, appeared as a candle rising above the horizon in the darkness. I remember hearing sonic booms as Shuttles passed over my house on their way to the landing strip at Kennedy Space Center. I remember the Shuttle looking much smaller than I expected while strapped to the back of a 747 on return flights from California. I remember covering the Columbia disaster at work. And I am sure I will remember this final launch, too.
I never saw a Shuttle launch in person, but I am certain it was a spectacular experience. A couple years ago my elderly grandmother attended one, and she was thrilled. Still, I cannot say I am broken-hearted to see the Shuttle retired. Decades after giant Saturn V rockets took men to the moon, low Earth orbit never seemed as impressive. Moreover, given the enormous advances in technology since the Apollo missions, I cannot help but think we could have done more. I hope we will. Though it has no practical benefit that I can see, a manned mission to Mars would be a historic endeavor, and a genuine source of pride for the USA. I would be happy to see that in my lifetime.