The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979
Or, what the Space Shuttle means to me. On Thursday, July 21 2011, US Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final time, returning from the last mission that the shuttle program will fly for the United States. The program and the shuttles themselves have been retired, cast aside due to a national lack of enthusiasm and a casualty of the ludicrous economic battles that pass for governance these days. But none of that matters to me when I think of the Space Shuttle.
First and foremost, to me it remains the last exciting moment of the US Space program that really touched people when I was growing up. Sure, the Mars rover and the various interstellar missions of the past 20 years have been interesting, but the Space Shuttle program was a continuance of that bright, shining age when it really looked as if science fiction was becoming science reality. It was totally conceivable that by the year 2000 we might have (small) colonies on the moon, or a floating city in space to replace Skylab.
In 1979 my dad was still in the Air Force and working at Kelly AFB in San Antonio when it was announced that the newly christened Shuttle Columbia, the first shuttle to go into space, would be stopping at Kelly overnight to refuel on it’s way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I was already excited about the shuttle, having seen the promos for the new James Bond movie, Moonraker, that was coming out that summer. So when dad woke me at 6am so we could drive across town to Kelly Field and watch it take off the news morning (on the back of a 747) I was beyond excited. I, of course loved Star Wars, and Buck Rogers, but this was REAL. I remember there were a lot of people who showed up to watch what was basically a big plane sit on a runaway, in an event that was closed to the public.
Afterwards, we went to a hobby shop where he bought me a small toy Space Shuttle. I remember keeping it sitting on my desk for quite some time, enamored by it’s unique shape and markings. Unlike previous spacecraft, the shuttle was a sleek, cool looking vehicle. I think it’s no coincidence that so many movies worked in the actual shuttle design instead of aping Star Wars when dealing with “non-fighter” craft. Unfortunately, we know how the rest of the story goes: I saw the Challenger disaster happen live on tv in my 11th grade art class. I remember how horrified and distraught my teachers were that one of their own was on that ship. And the Columbia herself came to rest back in Texas in 2003 in another horrific accident, although I was living in California by then.
But with all that, when I think of the Space Shuttle my mind always goes back to that little toy one my dad bought me, and the long gone hobby shop where it was purchased. You can still find hobby shops, where you can buy model planes and trains, but they are becoming few and far between. Like Borders bookstores that are closing for good this month, and Circuit City, And Linen’s & Things, and all the mom & pop bookstores and variety stores before them, we are left with just one or two big box stores for each category now. The era of stores that catered to specialty items exist online, but it’s not the same. There is something to be said for riding your bike to the hobby shop for a model, then to the variety store (Winns? TG&Y?) for some action figures, then on to the drugstore for trading cards and a soda, ending up at the neighborhood used bookstore where the owner has a little side room filled with old comics and pulp paperbacks to leaf through. But those days are gone, and they’re not coming back. And now I fear the days of excitement over space exploration are joining them on the shelf marked “nostalgia”.