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Losing Our Foothold

What’s next after the shuttle?

Thirty years three months and several days ago, the twin Solid Rocket Boosters strapped to the space shuttle Challenger ignited in unison, discharging a wake of flames and propelling up, up, up against gravity’s pull and into low-earth orbit.
    I see it still, my high school freshman eyes glued to the television brought into the auditorium. Classes excused, we were all there, watching history, as was most everyone in America, with all three networks and PBS breaking into their regular programming to cover the launch.
    Even before lift-off, the shuttles broke new ground, as those boosters remain the largest ever developed motors for space, each containing a million pounds of solid propellant.
    Once aloft, the fleet provided a foothold for space exploration. Like a stand-alone, unmanned rocket, the shuttles could launch satellites and other equipment. However, with the shuttle, astronauts could repair these objects, most memorably the flawed Hubble Telescope mirror, which otherwise would have amounted to a $2.5 billion write-off. The Hubble has since stretched our view of the cosmos through both space and time.
    Without the shuttles, there would be no International Space Station, and we would be without many discoveries and inventions we today take for granted, such as satellite TV, smoke detectors, medical resonance imaging (MRI), cordless power tools, ear thermometers, fire-repellent clothing and more.
    With the space shuttle Atlantis’ return from space Thursday, that era comes to an end. It’s an ending digested piece-meal over months, years. Were school in session, I doubt classes would stop to mark the occasion.
    As we begin a new, as-yet undetermined era in space exploration, I wonder what history we will make that imprints on the minds of my children and their children as strongly as the shuttle did on mine.