Shuttle Discovery Clears the Tower for the Last Time

News Analysis: Shuttle Discovery takes off on its final space flight as the reign of the United States as a leader in manned space exploration nears its end.

When I first wrote about a space shuttle in a technology publication, it was 26 years ago, and in the first paragraph, I wrote the words, "... and Discovery Clears the Tower." Time changes all things. Discovery was making its first flight, and I was watching the video on a computer monitor using something new in those days-something called "multimedia."

In the mid-1980s computers were just getting graphical displays. The first Macintosh was selling to a tiny number of customers. Microsoft was starting to distribute something called Windows, which was so crude it was useful more as a bad example than as a productivity tool.

But those were brave days. We saw the future of technology ahead of us, and it reminded us of Ronald Reagan's Shining City upon a Hill when he said those words in his farewell address. For years the space program and the shuttle fleet inspired us. When Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope, we gained the ability to see the universe almost to the beginning of time, and to see the vastness of the universe-and it allowed us to prove once and for all that the cosmological theories of Albert Einstein and later Stephen Hawking were right.

In those 26 years of Discovery, we've moved from exploring space to creating a place to live and do research. We've had our tragedies as two of those shuttles were lost, and we gained a new shuttle when Endeavour replaced Challenger to allow the shuttle flights to continue into the 21st century.

But as I said, time changes everything. Technology ages. Airframes become brittle. Little flaws become dangerous faults. Each time we learn, but there reaches a time when we must move on. Discovery's final flight will help complete the Space Station, and it will deliver a humanoid robot. The Space Station will be serviced, crews will be exchanged, and then Discovery will land, one last time.

There are two more shuttle flights, Endeavour and Atlantis, and then, by midsummer, America's manned space program will die. It won't be sudden and there won't be a climactic event-it will simply wither away under the weight of misguided budget cutting, congressional ignorance and that most intractable of all foes, bureaucracy.

Back when my first mention of Discovery appeared in my column in the long-gone Byte Magazine, this was all an exciting business. Technology was leading us to a bright and hopeful future. We could only imagine the wonders ahead of us, the marvelous things we could do. Perhaps we really would be able to converse with our computers, or perhaps they would gain capabilities that we couldn't imagine. Perhaps the time would come when we really could ask HAL to open the pod bay doors.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...