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.
Shuttle Falls Victim to Age, Bean Counters
But of course, that never happened. Instead we found ourselves with more of what we already had. Computers got smaller, networks got faster, graphics got better, and we got mobile phones. In the early ’90s we got access to the Web when something called Mosaic hit the streets, and I reviewed it for the first time. But there was little to indicate what a powerful force the Web would become from that first, very slow and very limited window on the Internet.
Eventually, we found ourselves with more information than anyone could ever absorb. The fact that there was no filter for that information, no way to make sure it was actually correct, was lost on us. But we found our way to where we are now. Today when you use your Web browser to visit nasa.gov and watched Discovery clear the tower for yourself, you can marvel at what we’ve accomplished.
But don’t forget to say goodbye to what we’re losing. The ability of the American people to explore this vast frontier is closing forever. Despite the claims to the contrary, there never will be a replacement for the space shuttle. Before long the Space Station will be deemed by some cost-cutting fanatic to be too expensive, and it will be gently nudged from orbit to die in disgrace in some tropical ocean just as its predecessor did when someone decided it cost too much. Perhaps we’ll have a day when we can stand outside and see the fiery trail as all that work, and all of those hopes, blazes in the upper atmosphere on the long, sad fall to Earth.
But there may be hope. A handful of believers are trying to bring us to space again. For some, it’s the excitement of travel; for others, it’s pure transportation; and for still others, it’s research. But for the people at Scaled Composites and its partner Virgin Galactic, for Space Exploration Technologies (Space-X) and for little companies like Xcor that are making the first tentative flights into space, you have our fervent wishes for success. You’re all we have left, but you may be enough. Commercial efforts have always led successful discovery-after all, it was the Virginia Company that really started the United States, not the British government.
But still, it’s been a quarter century of grand dreams and a belief in what might have been. Despite our hope for that shining city, we’ve also seen a sea of broken promises and failures to execute. We’ve always been plagued by visions that are too short, memories that are too faulty and valor that goes unrecognized. Maybe that helps explain the tears that come each time we see Discovery clear the tower.
Editor’s Note: This story originally had the wrong name of the shuttle replacing Challenger. It has been updated to state that Endeavour replaced Challenger.