To Boldly Go
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man [or one] has gone before.”
I’m a child of the space age. Where Sputnik created fear among members of our government, I was utterly fascinated. My lifelong love of space and flying came from Superman comics. I knew there were other planets with people on them. After all, hadn’t Jor-el and Lara put little Kal-el into a rocket and sent him to earth where he became Superboy then Superman? When Yuri Gargarin, Alan Shepherd, and John Glenn made their flights, I was completely hooked on the space program. In third grade I announced, with enthusiasm, I was going to be an astronaut. My classmates and the teacher laughed and taunted me for the rest of the year about my ridiculous statement. After all, girls couldn’t be astronauts.
I’m certainly glad that’s not true any more, but it took years for me to discover that along with those hot-shot, male pilots who became the Mercury Seven, there were women pilots who underwent the same training and in some cases exceeded the performance of the men–the Mercury 13. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several of them, and they were and are amazing women. They were ready, willing, and able to go, until a single congressman’s sexism dashed their dreams.
When I learned to fly, it wasn’t farm fields and towns I flew over. I was hurtling through the universe to other worlds. Flying got me as close as I could to space, and it wasn’t very close, but I reveled in it. Flying led to my job on an aviation magazine, and that job got me a press pass from NASA. I was there on April 12, 1981, when Columbia, STS-1, made the first trip to orbit. I trooped around with the reporters to all the photo ops, including taking pictures of the STS on its launch pad at night. Though I got eaten alive by mosquitos, it was a sight I’ll never forget.
I felt much better about being in awe of everything when I saw veteran space reporters as excited as children when that ship left earth, carrying with it my dreams of mining asteroids, building bigger, faster ships in orbit, establishing a permanent space station, everything that had made my imagination reel. I can still hear the roar of those rockets, feel the vibration of the ground, and see how the bright sky was made brighter.
I was home “sick” from work on January 28, 1986, with my eyes glued to the television to watch Challenger, STS-35, carry the first “everyday” citizen into space, a history teacher named Christa MacAuliffe. In that moment the humiliation of a third grader faded. A teacher, a history teacher, which I had once been, was going into space, but my dream didn’t die with her.
On my day off on February 1, 2003, I was rushing back from the grocery store to get home in time to see Columbia, STS-107, land–I tried to watch as many of the launches and landings as I could–when the report came over the radio of Columbia’s break-up in flight as it passed over Texas on its way to Cape Canaveral. I had to pull my car to the side of the road and wait until I was no longer overcome.
On July 8, 2011, in Florida on vacation and amid all the talk of the last Shuttle flight, I was in a car on the way to the Auto Train station in Sanford. Had it not been a cloudy day, we might have seen the plume of spent fuel marking that last flight into space. The space age has given us many advancements, and so in a car with a Smart Phone that looked so much like the communicators on Star Trek, I watched the countdown and the launch live. It wasn’t the same, but I could say I was there, that my fascination with STS had come full circle to a reluctant closure.
But I couldn’t watch today when Atlantis, STS-135, landed for the last time. I know we as humans will go on to explore space both in government ventures and private ones, but the thought of that incredibly beautiful glider never breaching the atmosphere again then returning to make a pinpoint landing was too much. The Shuttles were first and foremost aircraft, and, unlike the awkward but perfectly engineered Mercury and Apollo capsules, the Shuttle was something I could relate to as an aviator. It, too, was complex, one of the most complicated pieces of machinery in the world, but when I studied its controls and systems, I could see myself in the cockpit.
The 135 flights of STS resulted in innumerable accomplishments. Satellites placed in orbit have opened our eyes on the universe and shown us the toll we humans have taken on our planet. The Shuttle systems themselves, notably fly by wire and satellite navigation, are now standard on modern transport aircraft. Space medicine has led to improved patient care and treatment of diseases.
For those who think space flight is a waste of resources, I ask you, how can you limit our desire to explore? People have tried, like those who warned Columbus he’d fall off the end of the earth, but we persist as a people, as humans “to boldly go.” Every exploration on this world has resulted in casualties, and to stop exploring dishonors those who sacrificed. We have to look forward and outward.
I won’t see it, but some of the children who watched STS’ last flight will walk and live on Mars. Not long after that, cosmologically speaking, their children’s children will see a planet outside our solar system with their own eyes. And that’s something to look forward to.
Godspeed to Enterprise (the test vehicle that never made it to space) Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. You will always fly in my dreams.