by Melissa Brunner
I hadn't planned to watch it, but when I heard the special report come on the air, I couldn't help but pause. Atlantis lifted off the launchpad, the cloud of flames and smoke rising beneath, embarking on America's final space shuttle mission.
I guess I grew up with the space shuttle program. I would have been seven-years old when the first shuttle launched on April 12, 1981. I have vague memories of it, gathered around the one small television in our little grade school, everyone watching together. I remember seeing Sally Ride's smiling face in 1983, when she became the first American woman in space. I have clearer memories of the program's two tragedies. A teacher came to our classroom doorway in 1986, asking us to say a prayer because the Challenger had exploded shortly after takeoff. We'd been learning all about it since teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. In 2003, we were painting our office room with the TV on in the background when they broke in with news that Columbia had disintegrated upon reentry. "Is this worth it," analysts asked. I imagine the crews of both shuttles would have said yes.
Space holds a fascination. Maybe simply because it is space - a great, vast unknown. What answers might we find? What else might exist? And, wow, what a view! The downside is that it's expensive. And when people are struggling to make ends meet, out of work, going hungry, it can be hard to justify financing the what-if's.
I don't know what the future of space exploration has in store, or even what it should be, but, so far, I've enjoyed watching the ride.
Image from NASA.gov of Atlantis lifting off.