Goodbye, Atlantis.

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 the science fiction was becoming the 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 in the Air Force, 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 6 am 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, it an event that was closed to the public.

Afterward, we went to a hobby shop (Hobbies Unlimited, in Universal City, Tx) where he bought me a small toy Space Shuttle. I remember keeping it sitting on my desk for quite some time, enamored by its unique shape and markings. Unlike the 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 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 for 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 (Winn’s? 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”.


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    My first Megos came from a TG&Y on main street. I think the space is now a Chinese restaurant and a public defenders’ office. Needless to say, I miss the TG&Y. I’m going to miss the space shuttle too. I watched TV all day to see the first launch when I was a little Hourboy.

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    I know how you feel. My dad bought me a space shuttle toy set once, it was a plastic replica of the Columbia with opening hatch doors packed with a kid-sized helmet like the ones NASA technicians would wear on the field. I was in 7th grade English class when our principal announced over the speaker that the Challenger was no more. Fourteen good men and women gave their lives over thirty years and 135 missions so that mankind could advance to a higher plain. Most of the innovations seen in science and medicine today owe a lot to the space shuttle program. I honestly thought it would never end, but our grandchildren will ask about this era much as we did regarding the Apollo missions.

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    It’s a damn shame. Now we’re going to have to rely on the frickin’ Russians to get men in space. Horrifying.
    Maybe the next administration will be able to reverse some of this damage. But I doubt it.

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    I am willing to bet we frequented the same hobby shop back in the day, Hobbies Unlimited, same shopping center as Winns. Also remember getting up early to go view the shuttle piggy back take off with my dad at Kelly AFB. Those were magic times.

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    Don’t worry – the Chinese will be the new rulers of space before long.

  • Jason Geyer

    Holy cow! Charles Howell?!? I haven’t talked to you since high school!

    Yes, it was Hobbies Unlimited (although I couldn’t remember the name for the life of me). I miss how that whole strip mall used to be.

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    Yep, it’s been a long time. Remember when we tried to film Raiders of the Lost Ark in the backyard of my parents house? All those models we had for that were from Hobbies Unlimited. We’ll have to catch up.

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