Were the space shuttle to have flown in 1939, it would have still been flying when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Think about it.
The phrase “the end of an era” is tossed about like a beach ball at a Giants game. But in this case it is quite true. You can almost say that it is the end of the space-program as we know it. Or at least the remnants of NASA’s “glory days”.
First conceived in the minds of science fiction writers decades ago, approved by Congress in 1972 first flown in 1981, last flown in 2011, it hit a peak of 9 missions a year in 1985. It launched untold satellites, thrilled space nerds around the world, helped build the joint US/Russia International Space Station, and deployed one the most significant scientific instruments of all time, the Hubble Space Telescope. And still it never flew above low Earth orbit, never achieved the hoped for $100/lb to orbit in savings, never even came remotely close to the one launch per week rate that was promised and now with the Endeavour flyover of California, we witnessed the last flight of the last shuttle. Now a museum relic.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator, Dr. Hans Mark told this story of how the shuttle came to be: The Apollo missions were winding down and President Nixon asked NASA Administrator, James Fletcher, what could NASA do in a post-Apollo world. Dr. Fletcher replied that for the same cost of Apollo, $24 billion (that used to be a lot of money back then), NASA could have a space station and a fully reusable shuttle to supply the station. So Nixon said “you boys at NASA can do some amazing stuff. But I think it will be hard to sell it for that price. What could you do for half that?” Dr. Fletcher returned some time later and said “well, for $12 billion (that still used to be a lot of money back then), we could do a fully reusable shuttle.” Nixon thought about it, and said he thought that $12B would still be a tough sell, and asked what could done with half of that. Some time later Fletcher returns and said “well, for $6B we could do a partially reusable shuttle.”
And that’s what we got.
Was it expensive? Very. Delicate? Yes. Useful? Open to debate. The best that could have been done? Not by a long shot. But still it flew, still it thrilled, and still, it was beautiful. From the first launch in 1981, to its final landing in 2012, it was ours and it was something to be proud of.
And as one era ends, surely another begins.